Nashville native and singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle died yesterday at the age of 38. A cause of death has not been released.
Justin was the son of roots-rock legend Steve Earle and sometimes lived in that shadow. But as he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in 2008, legacy was not necessarily what got him into the family business.
“Nobody in my family, even on my mom’s side, ever discouraged me from playing music,” Earle said. “I mean I was a really messed up kid. You know, I got in a lot of trouble really fast, and when people saw me taking interest in something and it looked like I might be kind of good at it, people started going, ‘Please, do whatever you gotta do.’”
Like his father, Justin struggled with addiction, going in and out of rehab and suffering several overdoses. But he was able to maintain a highly productive career, starting with the “Yuma” EP in 2008 and finishing several albums and many awards later with 2019’s “The Saint of Lost Causes.”
As a bandleader Justin had a keen ear for incredible talent like Josh Hedley, Cory Younts, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires who played with him before their own careers took off. Their work shined alongside his in standout songs like “Mama’s Eyes” or “Harlem River Blues.”
Offstage, Justin had a reputation as a contrarian. He loved to stir the pot and skewer hypocrites, even if they were friends. But it was rare for those feuds to last. The years when he was on the winning side in his war against addiction, he was magnetic, funny, supportive. He did things to help people out without them ever asking. That’s a rare trait in the often, transactional world of music.
He shared what he loved and — even though he liked to quote Guy Clark about not letting the truth screw up a good story — he shared plenty of his own truth in his music.