The steep and winding path of Americana singer-songwriter, Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle, son of country rebel Steve Earle, took a similar but equally unique rock n’ roll path to his father, battling addiction from a young age and paving his way through the alternative country Americana scene.

Justin Townes Earle, Americana singer-songwriter and son of Steve Earle, has died at 38. The sad news was confirmed on Sunday evening through the avenues of the Nashville-based artist’s social media pages. The cause of death has not been revealed as of yet.

Known by many as JTE, Justin Townes Earle lived a troubled childhood growing up with no father figure around, battling the long road of addiction from as early as the age of 12. Immersing himself in the rock n’ roll lifestyle, JTE never tried to be like his father but clearly drew influence from him in a unique and often troublesome way.

justin townes earle, dead at 38, americana, steve earle son
Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

Justin Townes Earle took his middle name from Townes Van Zandt, a fellow musician and idol of his father’s. Steve Earle actually wanted to call his son Townes, but Carol (his wife at the time) insisted that not be the case. This was possibly due in part to the bouts of mischief Steve Earle got up to with Townes Van Zandt during their time on the road together.

“As artists, definitely they influenced me,” Justin Townes Earle said of the two musicians during an ABC interview back in 2015.

“As people, I wish they hadn’t influenced me growing up,” he continued. “I think I was going to have problems with substances no matter what, but I think the example I was shown kind of hastened the process.”

JTE was born in Nashville, the contemporary haven for western country music and the modern Americana genre. Being the son of alternative country legend Steve Earle, one could say it was fate that JTE would go onto become an established musician as well.

But Steve was never really there for his son, so the father-son influence may have instead shed through in an unconventional kinda way. Justin Townes Earle was one of his generation’s greatest Americana singer-songwriters, but the dislocated path he took definitely wasn’t all pretty colours.

“One thing that needs to be made clear is that people always say, ‘What’s it like growing up with Steve Earle,’ and I don’t fucking know,” JTE said in a 2009 interview with The Boot. “You have just as good of an idea of what it’s like growing up with Steve Earle as I do. I grew up with Carol-Ann Earle.”

Justin Townes Earle heard his first Leadbelly record at age 12, deciding that music would be the only road he would ever take. He got his start as a musician in Nashville, playing in the Swindlers and the Distributors; bands that merged bluegrass with rock n’ roll.

But it was never going to be smooth sailing for JTE who began using drugs around the same time. He moved in with his father at age 13, living out the excesses of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

JTE earnt his place playing with his father’s touring band, The Dukes. Steve, an ex-junkie himself would later fire his son from the band, due to inconsistencies exacerbated by Justin’s ongoing drug abuse. Steve may very well have been trying to save his son from himself.

Justin soon fell into a long bout of drug addiction. By the age of 21, a young JTE had survived more than five heroin overdoses.

“I wrote one song in rehab last month. I definitely write better when I’m not using drugs or drinking. When I’m using, it’s hard to keep me out of a bar or hard to get me off the dope spot,” JTE spoke openly about his battle with addiction in a 2010 interview.

“When I do go off, I go off the deep end. I was completely clean for six years. When I use drugs, I don’t do anything else. I am a drug addict.”

JTE decided he really needed to go and get some help when he faltered with respiratory failure after a 14 day drug-fuelled coke and dope bender. He slipped in and out of rehab for a number of years before he began his solo career as a musician. He released his first EP, Yuma, on Bloodshot Records in 2007.

But it probably wasn’t until JTE released his sophomore record, Midnight at the Movies, that he began to be truly recognised on the Americana musical spectrum. He was 26 at this point and his life really bled out through the lyrics of the record.

His first real hit, Mama’s Eyes, truly captures Justin coming to terms with the familial conflict he experienced throughout his short-lived existence: “I was a young man when / I first found the pleasure in the feel of a sin / I went down the same road as my old man / I was younger then”.

Justin Townes Earle picked up two Americana Music Awards for his most well-known tune, Harlem River Blues, the title track to his third LP which came out in 2010. After staying clean and taking up sobriety for six years, JTE ended up in an Indianapolis cell for public drunkenness and resisting arrest in that very same year.

JTE released eight studio albums throughout his career, starting with The Good Life in 2008 and ending with The Saint of Lost Causes in 2019. His last record thematically deals with social issues that hit close to home, including the Flint water crisis and America’s controversial criminal justice system.

JTE lived everywhere from New York to Portland but died in his Nashville hometown. He is survived by his wife Jenn and young daughter, Etta St. James Earle.

Justin Townes Earle was an honest performer with a multifaceted and troubled character. He played best when he was hunched over an acoustic guitar performing the honky-tonk just like the great blues predecessors who influenced him the most. He towered above the rest (just shy of 2 metres at 6’6) with an often intimidating presence, but JTE’s gentle smile paired with his often soft voice brought out the fragility of a man who faced off many of his own demons with no easy way out.

A social media post on JTE’s Instagram page reads: “It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin,” the statement reads. “So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin.”