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BBC – Music – Review of Justin Townes Earle

Written by on October 20, 2020

Why Nashville-born singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle isn’t a stadium-packing superstar is a mystery. Country music continues to be one of the largest grossing and persistently Grammy-grabbing genres around, both in the Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch Americana mould and via the younger, glossier version peddled by Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum. Even so, there still seems to be something of a blind spot for its ever-growing band of anti-pop, alternative-leaning acts: artists raised on punk and enveloped in old-school tattoos, now answering the seemingly inbuilt call of traditional folk music sounds by casting their sonic nets back to George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. This brand of – dare we say it? – hipster country, as sung by the likes of Caitlin Rose, Robert Ellis, William Elliott Whitmore and Justin Townes Earle himself, is not just accomplished and exhilarating, but provides a vital, authentic taste of the United States, one steeped in history but simultaneously bang up-to-date.

Earle’s fourth full-length album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, owes much to Muscle Shoals horns and Stax’s southern soul. But it is still very much a country record, not least because of the lyrics, which ruminate on lost love, loneliness and familial strife. Though recorded in North Carolina the geography of 2010’s outstanding Harlem River Blues lingers, with Earle offering a nod to his New York City base in the languid Down on the Lower East Side. Here blasé brass invokes Tom Waits’ beatnik jazzman days, dripping with the sticky sultriness of leather-seated lounge bars, smouldering cigarettes and inappropriate dames. Yet he’s willing to travel out of Manhattan now, like on the barrelling Memphis in the Rain, which zings with a full-bodied bluesy shuffle, unapologetic chord progression and whirling organ.

The son of hard-folkin’ singer Steve Earle – and named after his father’s close friend, the gifted but troubled Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt – Earle turned 30 at the start of the year. He doesn’t skip over this landmark, instead lamenting “30 years of running” over honky-tonk harmonica on Movin’ On while insisting that he’s “learning to be a better man” on the buoyant Look the Other Way. Now, is that finally the sound of the stadiums we finally hear calling?

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