The highlight of the back half of Justin Townes Earle’s Single Mothers, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter’s superlative fifth record, is “White Gardenias,” a tribute to one of Earle’s favorite musicians, jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Holiday seems an unlikely inspiration on Earle, who’s nominally an alt-country troubadour. But a close listen to the way he sings on ballads like “Worried Bout the Weather” and “It’s Cold in This House” reveals a clear inspiration from Holiday’s instrument-like voice, his conversational and unclasped singing approximating her frayed edges.
“Her timing is just impeccable,” Earle said. “Just really far behind the beat, and I try to achieve that with my singing, and also to carry my voice like she did. You never saw veins sticking out of her throat or anything like that, but her voice always carried very well and stayed very smooth. I think she’s affected me with the utter emotion that went into her music.”
There’s another parallel linking Holiday and Earle. Holiday’s career was famously marred by drug abuse, drinking, and toxic relationships; so, too, were the early years of Earle’s career marked by self-destructive indiscretion, a trait seemingly inherited from his similarly troubled dad and notorious Nashville outlaw Steve Earle.
By age 21, Earle had survived five heroin overdoses, finally getting help after a 14-day coke and dope binge that ended in respiratory failure.
After bottoming out again in late 2010, when an arrest following a binge forced him to cancel a month of tour dates, Earle’s stayed sober. He got married back in December. (“She’s an amazing woman,” he said of his wife. “She’d be every true artist’s dream. I definitely got the better end of the deal, for sure.”) He’s maturing, he allows, and his songwriting, as a result, has taken positive strides.
“I feel a lot better about my writing these days,” he said. “I’ve always had a semi-amount of doubt in my records—even The Good Life and Midnight at the Movies. I’m definitely a more confident person, and a bit more of a deliberate writer.”
Single Mothers benefits from such calculation. It’s a series of loosely connected vignettes—a kind of musical dialogue about real and fictional women—drawn from Earle’s history, without being strictly autobiographical or naively confessional.
“All you can do is tell how [things] affected you,” he said. “What did it result in for you, emotionally? That’s where I try to look from. I try to go from the point of view of how people feel after something happens as opposed to what exactly happened.”
“People relate to emotion,” he continued. “I mean, if I say I was smoking crack and I was feeling down, that cuts the relationship to my music down to a very slim population. Now if I say I was killing myself and I was feeling down, that’s a much different thing. That leaves a broader interpretation, and I think that’s what people want—they want to interact with the song.”
Earle cut Single Mothers in the same Quad Studios room where Neil Young recorded Harvest, with the same group of players he’s toured with for a few years including Matt Pence and Mark Hedman, the rhythm section of the Texas-based indie-rock band Centro-matic; and Paul Niehaus, who’s provided graceful, elliptical pedal steel lines for the Arizona-
based desert noir band Calexico and mercurial Nashville alt-country band Lambchop.
Having players who operate largely outside of the confines of the Music City machine, Earle said, was paramount in making Single Mothers and keeping its arrangements sharp. “Paul is and never has been a Nashville musician; he’s never fit in that mold,” Earle said. “I needed guys that had never been there, and they’d never thought about it, and there was not one safe bone in their body.”
Earle currently resides in Nashville, if not entirely by choice. He has “some family issues” going on, he said, that forced him to return to the town where his mother raised him by herself.
Earle grew up about ten blocks south of Broadway in Nashville, which teems with juke joints and honky tonks, and it profoundly affected who he is, but he hates what Nashville’s become.
“It’s definitely a semi-terrible place,” said Earle. “I wouldn’t be here if my mother wasn’t here. It’s hard to watch your hometown turn into Los Angeles or Atlanta or something.”
No matter where Earle goes, physically, from here, he’ll be starting from a point of artistic strength. On Single Mothers, he never writes more than the song demands, never dulls the potency of his expressions by tempering them with saccharine sentiment. Though it might be, in his words, a more hopeful record, there’s still plenty of his characteristic self-damning darkness to go around.
For Earle, at least, getting married, staying clean and loving your mother aren’t the artistic death-knells they might seem. “I still have 30 years behind me of very rough to semi-rough life,” he laughed. “So I’m not going, y’know, ‘Shiny Happy People’ any time soon.”