Vale Justin Townes Earle, The Saint Of Lost Causes

Vale Justin Townes Earle, The Saint Of Lost Causes

justin townes earle
Justin Townes Earle. Photo by Ross Gilmore/Redferns via Getty Images. 

The frequency of deaths in music now has anesthetised us to it somewhat, but it's still shocking when it happens to someone young. And Justin Townes Earle, son of country rebel Steve Earle and a prolific and powerful artist in his own right, whose passing was announced on his Facebook page this morning, was only 38.

A hellraiser like his dad – and his dad's hero and mentor, the late great Townes Van Zandt, whose name Justin was proud to carry - Justin started early. At most things. As he sang on perhaps his first really classic track, "Mama's Eyes":

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

He was 26 when he first sang those words, on his second album, 2009's Midnight At The Movies, and he had already been in and out of rehab numerous times. According to Wikipedia, he'd started taking drugs at the age of 12.

Indeed before he started his solo career, when he was barely out of his teens, Justin was briefly a member of his dad's band The Dukes. Steve, then, as now, was sober, and eventually kicked Justin out of the group. The father was trying to save the son from himself. Although they patched it up later, Justin's early work was marked by this ignominy. From "Mama's Eyes" again:

I am my father's son

We don't see eye to eye

And I'll be the first to admit I've never tried

Justin's recording career spanned little more than a decade, but in that time he released nine albums, including the landmark third album Harlem River Blues. Nine was also how many times he toured Australia in that short period - he had a large and committed fan base here who were always happy to see him.  

Justin Townes Earle was an arresting performer, a fine and deeply honest singer-songwriter and a troubled soul who radiated kindness and humility on and off the stage. He was perhaps at his best performing solo, slightly hunched over his acoustic guitar. A towering figure – he stood 6 foot 6 inches tall, just shy of 2 metres – he would hit his strings hard, beating out a rhythm as he finger-picked a melody. In that way, he was like the old blues guys that he loved, who developed similar techniques in pre-amplification days to be heard over the din of a crowded juke joint or honky-tonk. Justin had a strong, perhaps even intimidating presence, but he also had a sweet, gentle voice, and a shy smile. Solo performance allowed the dual qualities of his nature to shine through without distraction and showed clearly that everything that made Justin Townes Earle a great artist was right there inside him.

Justin Townes Earle is survived by his wife Jenn and young daughter, Etta St. James Earle.

Let's hear a few favourites, ending with a beautiful version of the title track from his final album recorded live in the studios of Melbourne's 3PBS-FM, a little over a year ago.  


You can stream Justin Townes Earle's two latest albums 2017's Kids In the Street and 2019's The Saint of Lost Causes on Spotify below.

Listen to Justin Townes Earle on Apple Music:

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