When Justin Townes Earle took the stage Monday night (May 21) at The Sinclair, he resembled a tornado: A sudden gust of wind and energy, fast-moving, with no time for anyone to settle in or become acquainted with his presence. After all, the audience had more than an hour of Lilly Hiatt’s pristine voice guiding us through heartache and turmoil; perhaps we should have been prepared.
Justin Townes Earle, the son of Steve Earle and namesake of Townes Van Zandt, is a 6-foot-4 self-described “piece of white trash from Tennessee” and inevitably hard to ignore onstage. As he swung his guitar around front and launched into “Champagne Corolla,” a honky-tonk and Motown-infused tune from his newest album, he expected the crowd to settle in to the Cambridge club just as quickly. Earle’s strumming hands were a blur, a hummingbird to accompany his tangy voice, yet it didn’t come off as unpolished. Instead, his stage presence mimicked his personal nonchalance: He’s just a man with a lot of stories to tell and limited time and energy.
If you’ve ever visited Nashville, you’ll know the feeling of walking into any joint on Lower Broadway –regardless of whether you know the live musicians, there’s a sense of familiarity in both the style and content. Nashville songwriters and musicians seemingly behold the secret to writing a catchy song about just about anything.
For a guy who started doing drugs at 12 years old, struggled with addiction, got clean, and grew up with Steve Earle as his (albeit absent) father, Justin Townes Earle could probably pinpoint any year of his life and dream up a dramatic song. But part of Earle’s charm — and the charm of a place like Nashville –is akin to a song like “Champagne Corolla,” a ditty about a champagne-colored car. There are no theatrics. There’s no fluff. There’s just a man and his guitar, telling it like it is.
After most of his songs, Earle would traipse a few feet behind the mic to grab his yellow pack of cough drops and take a swig of water. After “Champagne Corolla,” Earle tosses a cough drop in his mouth and jokes, “these things are worse than crack. And I know.” Again, Earle continued to toe the line of recklessness and charm, ultimately bringing the crowd with him when he’d look up and smirk.
Earle made pit stops at an earlier album, playing “Memphis in the Rain” and “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” before toying with blues covers. He introduced the audience to Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, riffing the whole way through.
Earle speaks in blues lyrics anyway, so it didn’t come as a surprise that he’s fluent in American country blues. Between songs, he’d drop lines like, “You want to be married to a musician until you’re married to a musician” and “I’m an Earle, I can be ornery. Ornery is more artful.” His banter had a trace of newfound sense of self-awareness that Earle didn’t (or couldn’t) express only a few years back. Blame it on settling down or blame it on getting clean, but it put the audience at ease in ways maybe they weren’t expecting.
He played songs for his “mama” and grandfather (“He’ll be buried in Texas with the rest of the Earles… but I’ll be damned if I’m buried in Texas.”). And then, in standard, rebellious Earle fashion, he’d then pivot to a song about “moving to Chicago and stealing $30,000 from a dope dealer.”
When Earle briefly stopped the set to talk about substance abuse, you could hear the room actively listening. He’s never been shy talking about his life or problems with drugs, but Earle’s frankness continued to work in his favor as he spoke earnestly about the opioid crisis. “Instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, ask, ‘Why are you hurting?’” It was a moment of clarity — maybe even a moment to breathe — before he played “White Gardenias,” a song for Billie Holiday, where he sings, “Caught the first train to Baltimore/‘Cause long ago she left her heart there/‘Cause she could not stop the bleeding.”
When he spun back onstage, Earle’s encore encapsulated his current musical mood. He played two covers: Obscure blues artist Malcolm Holcomb and ’80s Midwestern rock band The Replacements. As he finished out with “Can’t Hardly Wait,” he sang, “See you’re high and lonesome/Try and try and try.” Earle’s got the gruff energy and heart to try (and astound), whether it’s kicking an addiction or shepherding the Monday night crowd at The Sinclair, dropping bittersweet adages along the way.