Justin Townes Earle's Latest Effort, Single Mothers, is His Finest to Date

Justin Townes Earle's  Latest Effort, Single Mothers, is His Finest to Date
Joshua Black Wilkins

In the ever-expanding circles of Americana singer-songwriterdom, Justin Townes Earle may seem like an odd candidate for axis. But at the age of 32, with four albums behind him, he's writing and singing the finest songs of a turbulent, unpredictable career. He'll always be the son of country musician Steve Earle (and the step-son of singer Allison Moorer and nephew to musician Stacey Earle), but he's not a kid anymore. He's becoming a singer, writer and recording artist of the first rank.

But there have been times when the wheels have threatened to run completely off that wagon. Though he says he's been clean for over a decade, he's had relapses -- the most notorious in late 2010, when he binged so hard he all but lost his mind.

"I had a slip-up during the Harlem River Blues tour that lasted six months, and other than smoking reefer, I haven't been on drugs since I was 22," Earle says on the phone from Nashville, where he currently makes his home. "All my craziness was pre-twenties, mainly. I kind of fell apart just before the album Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now came out. I had to cancel the tour and go away. I did, and I'm glad I did. I was at the end. I was an inch away from going back to my former behaviors, and then I met my wife and it made all the difference in the world, just having someone there, someone who has promised to help you and you've promised to help them."

Married in 2013 but far from settled down, Earle has made the finest record of his career with Single Mothers, due out on Vagrant Records on September 9. It's a concept album of sorts, an homage to the mother who raised him on her own -- father Steve split while he was still an infant -- and a kind of musical dialogue with women he's known or invented, hurt or been healed by. The title evokes John Prine's "Unwed Fathers," which is not quite a coincidence. Earle knows the Prine catalogue as well as he does Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen's, but the sound and approach is very much his own, stamped by the spare, instinctive way he has long had with rock & roll, honky tonk, soul, gospel and folk.

With long-time engineer Adam Bednarik, Earle recorded Single Mothers at Quad Studios Nashville, in the same room where Neil Young cut Harvest in 1971. The record features the rhythm section of Denton, Texas-based indie-rock band Centro-matic -- Matt Pence and Mark Hedman -- and the elliptical, expressive pedal steel guitar of Calexico's Paul Niehaus.

"You can scoop up the best players in Nashville," Earle says. "I wanted to go outside of Nashville, work with guys who never had to play the country gigs that they didn't want. I wanted something that wasn't hit by the Nashville sound."

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