Photo: Justin Townes Earle's Instagram
Anyone listening closely could’ve heard this coming. I’ve only ever known him as a precautionary tale. Justin Townes Earle passed away on August 20th, 2020 of an apparent overdose. He’s survived by a father whose footsteps he followed with a wabbly gate to the bitter end. He’s survived by a catalogue of songs as timeless as vice itself. He’s survived by a daughter and a complicated legacy.
Like many music fans, I grew up deifying fallen heroes. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Curt Cobain. Artists that took on a posthumous mystique that inflated their influence to mythic proportions. Checking out before 30 with a classic album or two under your belt seemed like poetic justice to me. A life well lived. The way to go. With my 27th birthday looming, I can’t help but feel ashamed of this train of thought.
While he outlived the infamous 27 club by over a decade, Justin Towns Earle appeared to have spent his life on a collision course with tragedy. His guitar playing sounded more like picking a scab than a string. His voice held in its country croon a sorrow that superseded subject matter. His demons weren’t just documented by rehab stints, they were splayed out in his songs for all to see.
In “Movin On” he writes, “I talked to my Mom today, she seems like she’s doing fine/Tell her I’ve been getting sick again, we both pretend we don’t know why”. This seemingly banal family interaction outlines a disturbing pattern in how we deal with addiction. The issue at hand is spoken of in coded terms, never directly addressed. Allowed to fester because confronting our loved ones makes us more uncomfortable than seeing them struggle.
I’d never heard of Earle until I saw his obituary scattered across my news feed. For this reason, it’s impossible to separate his music from his life’s outcome. Like sitting through Casino for 2 ½ hours knowing full well Joe Pesci is doomed to meet the business end of a baseball bat. Upon my first listen, I didn’t feel the weight of this loss. I was happy to have discovered an earnest songwriter, the raw expression inherent to every note he plucked and sang. As I became more intimately acquainted with his music, I began to mourn his passing.
When I listen to these songs, I don’t just hear a sorghum-sweet voice accompanied by soulful fingerpicking patterns. I hear an open wound. I am enamored by this outcry but saddened by its source. It’s hard to say if this sadness is what drew me in and keeps me listening. It’s hard to say why some artists aren’t truly appreciated until after they’re gone or to what degree their faults deserve further examination. But it’s easy to see how self-destruction strikes a chord within an audience.
27 is too young just like 38 is too young just like any amount of time is too long to spend suffering. He was no saint nor martyr of a lifestyle worth aspiring to. His premature death shouldn’t turn Justin Townes Earle into an icon. His songs weren’t written to fill arenas or top charts. They feel as though they were written out of necessity—an overflow of emotion that could not be contained by a brain and ultimately could not be sustained by a body. These innate qualities don’t construct a myth of a larger-than-life figure taken too soon. They paint a self-portrait of a flawed human being with translucent skin and a heart as big as it was broken—an image that inspires a closer look.