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Singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle finding his way
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff

Justin Townes Earle, son of country rocker Steve Earle, has earned raves of his own for his latest record "Midnight at the Movies." The younger Earle appears in Chicago this weekend.


The twangy, melodic "Midnight at the Movies" delivers a stirring set of original songs by Justin Townes Earle, along with a nifty cover of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait."


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Published: 2/24/2010 12:00 AM

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Justin Townes Earle discovered legendary blues-folk artist Leadbelly the way many people his age did.

On a Nirvana record.

Kurt Cobain performed a blistering version of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged in New York" album. Hearing that song roughly 15 years ago changed Earle's life.

"I bought an acoustic guitar right after that," the 28-year-old Earle said. "I knew then what I wanted to do with my life."

Do it he has. Earle, the son of country-rock artist Steve Earle, released one of 2009's most acclaimed records with "Midnight at the Movies," his second full-length. Amid a flurry of positive buzz for the record, Earle was named a style icon by GQ Magazine. And now he's in the midst of a national tour that brings him to Chicago on Saturday.

"It's been pretty wild," he said. "Critics have been pretty kind to me with all my records, but this year it's actually translating into ticket sales at the shows. I guess the publicity gods are being good to me."

Contrary to what one might think, Earle says he didn't grow up surrounded by music. His parents split when he was very young, and he lived with his mother in Nashville.

"She hated musicians after that," Earle said with a laugh. "I guess I can't blame her."

After his Nirvana moment, Earle spent some time playing in his father's backup band. "He called me in anytime someone else couldn't make it," Earle said.

But the teenage Earle had already begun to succumb to the temptations of drugs, and things got worse on the road. His tenure playing for his dad, who fought his own battles with drugs, was short-lived.

"For a while there, my parents were worried I was going to end up a loser on a street corner somewhere," Earle said.

He cleaned himself up and dedicated himself to songwriting. Earle found inspiration in American musical pioneers like Woody Guthrie and the aforementioned Leadbelly. He also took cues from more recent influences, like Minneapolis post-punk band the Replacements; a cover of the band's "Can't Hardly Wait" appears on "Midnight at the Movies."

The songs on "Midnight," out on Chicago label Bloodshot Records, shimmer with country music touches like mandolin, fiddle and steel guitar, not to mention Earle's soulful, twangy vocals. The songs also showcase his ability to write compelling, occasionally soul-baring lyrics. (Check out "Mama's Eyes," a devastating look at the qualities he shares, and doesn't share, with his famous father.)

"I'm so honest in songs that sometimes my parents get a little upset," Earle said. "But it's the only way I know how to write. And overall, my mom and dad both have been incredibly supportive of me."

Earle has been touring with a stripped-down band; he's accompanied only by stand-up bass and fiddle. The setup has its aesthetic advantages, as well as some practical ones.

"We can afford slightly better food this way, and everyone gets his own hotel room," he said. "At this point, there's no way I'm letting anyone bunk with me."

Justin Townes Earle (with Joe Pug)

When: 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27

Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago

Tickets: $12 in advance, $14 at the door; go to