After developing some bad habits when he was playing in bands (including his father’s) as a younger man, Justin cleaned up his act and began to focus on his career. “You don’t have to be fucked up or torture yourself to write songs,” explains Justin, “I used to write a lot, a whole lot, and half those songs I don’t even remember. Now, I sit there and I write it and I finish it and I keep it.”
I’ve had the opportunity to see Justin perform live twice. Once on a cold, rainy autumn day in Brooklyn, and more recently at SXSW. He is one of the most charismatic performers that I’ve seen in recent years. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this guy is going to be a very big star. He is also one of the smartest, most interesting, and outspoken people that I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. Read on, you’ll see what I mean.
Where are you today?
We’re actually on our way from Vancouver to Reno.
You’re pretty much on non-stop tour. How much longer do you have to go before you get a break?
I’ve had little breaks. I’ll fly home (New York City) on Tuesday for a few days, then I’m gone again. It’s usually two weeks on, a few days off.
You grew up in Nashville, correct?
Why did you decide to move to New York, and when?
I moved up there in December. I’ve always been more fascinated by the lives of people like Truman Capote and people like that then I have been with rock stars. When I was in my late teens I was all about Jack Kerouac and the Beats. I came to New York City for the same reason that people like Tennessee Williams did, because it’s the place to be. It’s the place to live. When you have the option to live in New York City, then do it. That’s the way I think about it. At least for a little while. I’m 27 now, and I knew that if I didn’t move to New York before I was 30, I probably wasn’t going to do it. So I just decided to go ahead and jump. I’ve always been good at making rash, quick, split-second decisions.
One of the places that you’ll be playing soon is at Bonnaroo. Have you played that before, or other big festivals?
I’ve played festivals like it before, but I’ve never played Bonnaroo. I’ve played festivals that are big, but there aren’t any as big as Bonnaroo, except for Glastonbury maybe, and that’s probably about the same as Bonnaroo.
How do you feel about playing there?
It feels good. It’s going to be a festival gig, and I imagine since it’s bigger than all the other festivals it will be a bigger pain in the ass. It’s a whole lot of work, to get up on stage for about 30 minutes, but they’re always worth it.
Will you be playing with a band, or just you and Cory (Younts, who tours with Justin)?
Cory will definitely be there. I may bring a fiddle player too.
A little over a year ago, you played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. Tell me about that experience.
It was a surreal experience. It was everything that I thought it was going to be, but then at the same time you’re standing there the whole time going, “this is the Grand Ole fucking Opry.”
When you go out there, you stand on that spot on the stage where they cut out the stage. They cut out the center position of the Ryman stage and they took it with them to the new Opry house, and they put it in the stage. So when you walk out there to where the lead singer stands, your boots are hitting the same boards that Hank Williams did. That’s something else.
I’ve reviewed both of your most recent albums. I guess the natural inclination is for people to wonder whether your music is like your father’s. Personally, I feel that your music is much different. You’re more old school. So where does your influence come from musically?
I think that the way that works is that when I came up and I started listening to music, I was like a lot of kids. I had all the Warrant and Poison records because that was what was all over MTV when I was really young. It took me until I was about 12 to realize that that shit sucked. I needed to find something else and I just kept looking. With the rare exceptions of bands like the Replacements, Fine Young Cannibals, and the Thompson Twins, the ’80s were awash with bullshit. Very few good records came out of it, and it was a really hard time to love music.
I couldn’t agree more, though people I know think that it’s the greatest decade ever. People who should know better.
It’s probably because they still do cocaine.
When I started looking for music, I wanted something with depth. I had to go looking back to the source for it, where it all started. I think when my dad came of age, he moved to Nashville in ’72, that was like the mystical period in the early to mid ’70s when singer/songwriters mattered. They really mattered. There was a whole rash of singer/songwriters that came out. So when that ended, the ’80s came along, and all those guys like Hiatt and all those guys who were just singer/songwriters were made to progress, or die. Now it seems like the ingredient is regress or die. It’s moved so far forward that it’s starting to get to where it’s losing all roots to American music whatsoever. That’s why the Replacements were so good. You can hear Carl Perkins in the Replacements. You can’t hear Carl Perkins in fucking Korn, or Nickelfuck … Nickelback.
It’s like when the Beatles came out. You could hear Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry in their songs. So what you’re saying is that there used to be a line of tradition in music that’s vanishing now.
The reason that Bob Dylan was good is that he understood Woody Guthrie. The reason that the Beatles were good is that they understood Fats Domino. They were not, and never said they were re-inventing the wheel. They were working inside existing formats, and doing their best to add their little sprinkles of something new. Not something new with a little something old. It’s a lot of something old with little something new.
Your dad is very political, committed to a lot of causes. You are not chasing that for the most part. How do you feel about including politics in your music?
I think that there’s a time and place for everything, and I think that there’s a time and a place for everybody, and this is not my time to do that. One thing that I’ve watched with my father’s career; I’m extremely proud of my father’s politics. I feel the same way. But you know what, if a guy who is a really nice guy, but just happens to be a lifelong Republican, those people don’t feel comfortable going to my dad’s shows. That’s kind of a shame. It doesn’t bother my dad. That’s what my dad does, that’s what he likes, but there are a bunch of people who just want to go hear the music. My father is really good at what he does, so I think I’ll just leave that up to him. My job as I see it is to make you forget that there’s a recession. It’s to come in for two hours, or however long I’m on stage, and that world just doesn’t matter. That’s why I loved George Jones. He always made me feel better because I didn’t feel as bad as he did.
The influence of Hank Williams in both your music and your stage persona is rather apparent, at least to me. Is it fair to assume that Hank was a big influence on you as well?
Hank was definitely a massive influence on me. There was something to Hank’s music that a lot of people don’t identify. Whenever you hear Hank’s named mentioned you hear “it’s country music, it’s country music, it’s country music.” But you know what? Hank Williams records don’t sound like any country music I ever heard. When whitey was going to sleep, he was sneaking off to the juke joints and having his fun, and having his whiskey with the black folks. I think Hank was the first time, and this was totally slipped in under the radar because white people in Hank’s time would have completely freaked out about this. Elvis was not the first white kid to do black people’s music and get famous from it. Hank Williams was. Charlie Poole was. That was a long tradition. Hank’s music is blues music. Listen to the riffs, the notes and all that stuff. It’s nothing like any other country out there. Nobody else could do it like that.
It’s on your slower songs like “Who Am I To Say,” “Turn Out My Lights,” or “Someday We’ll Be Forgiven For This” from your more recent album (Midnight at the Movies) that the influence of Townes Van Zandt becomes more apparent, perhaps filtered through your father. Do you think that’s the case?
Yeah, my balladry is definitely influenced by Townes and my father, because that was my favorite thing that they did. Townes could write a ballad that could absolutely rip you to fucking pieces, but he would sing them in different voices for different characters, different times, and different places. It’s like what Springsteen does. Springsteen has a different place in his chest to sing for everything he does. If you listen to “Hungry Heart,” and then put that up next to, on the same record, “The River,” you’ve got two totally different approaches to singing that are light years away from each other. But they represent the song properly. As a live performer I want to be a good singer, and I want to be a good guitar player, and I want to be a good writer, and part of that is just letting it happen.
In your song “Mama’s Eyes,” you make some pretty direct statements about your father, such as “never know when to shut up,” and “we don’t see eye to eye.” Tell me about that.
There’s nothing about my relationship with my father that you can’t find out with Google. You can Google our names and find that terrible book that Lauren St. John wrote (“Hardcore Troubador: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle”, which has light facts in it, here and there. It’s mostly bullshit, way more sensational than the real deal. Our lives and our relationship are, have been, and always will be public, because people are always going to want to figure out the psychology between singer/songwriter father and son. They’re always going to want to know where the bodies are buried, and who’s got what in whose closet kind of thing. You just let it happen.
I think what I was trying to do with that song was … it’s like people already knew what was going on but they had this fascination and they wanted to ask all these questions. So I just decided, in conjunction with stating that I am my mother’s boy, saying that my mother raised me, using that situation to let everybody know. Because I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to just go ahead and tell everybody before they find out, because it’s going to be a lot easier. You can’t get blindsided.
I’ve heard you speak briefly on stage about your grandfather, and he seems to have had a huge influence on your life. Can you speak about him?
My grandfather raised five children on an air traffic controller’s pay. Even my dad will admit that the only reason my dad was fucked up was that he chose to be fucked up. It wasn’t like he had this terrible home life that he was running away from. He chose to run away. I think that’s the difference in what you get between me and my father. He had a life that he wanted to lead, and he chose to go lead it. He did it very well, and took off, and he ended up creating all of these problems that he had later in life. I ended up inheriting all those problems. My grandfather never did that to anybody. That’s a real heavy thing to do to somebody.
My grandfather was about 5′ 10″. A barrel-chested Texan. He was a nose tackle for Texas A&M, a pilot, a great father, a great grandfather to me. He practically raised me through my teens. From about 13 to 22 he was someone I leaned on very much when I needed help.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ve only got three records out, but I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, touring like this. I still love playing live, but I want to play live less. A little bit less. Right after Midnight at the Movies came out, I came out with all this thunder behind me, saying that I was going to make another record really quick, but I just think that nobody’s going to get anything else out of me for at least another year. I need some time to slow down because it’s turning into work. It is work. It’s a lot of work, and it’s really hard work. I need a period in my life where it’s all just art again. I need to stop and let it just be art again, and not be the grind of being on the road.