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Justin Townes Earle Is a Songwriter, First and Foremost

Justin Townes Earle can tell stories.

It's what the Nashville-raised singer-songwriter has done for six years, writing albums that have placed him at the forefront of rusty, soulful Americana. His records drip with imagery — muddy rivers, ghosts, "Memphis in the Rain" — and he speaks just as vividly as he writes. It's a constant reminder that he's first and foremost a songwriter — something he's acutely aware of.

"Writers, we were born a certain way," Earle says. "I find that there's a certain amount of sensitivity that's common amongst great songwriters. They're usually the smartest people in the room."

Earle's inspirations stem from a Tennessee upbringing that left him imbued with soul and blues music just as much as country. His most recent release, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, sorts through those influences.

"I thought Al Green was cool — seeing a light blue Cadillac, top down, gold wheels, a guy in the front seat with a straw hat bumpin' 'I'm So Tired of Being Alone,'" he says, laughing as he recalls the scenery of his Southern upbringing.

Earle devoted five years to living in New York as he fostered his musical career (his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, speaks to that time) but lately Earle's found himself in Nashville.

"New York was just an adult dose of people you saw, different cultures you encountered. It was amazing," he says. "I've found that I'm having trouble writing now that I've come back to Tennessee."

It's surprising coming from Earle, whose ability to write emotive music has given him a filter that makes him a worthy critic himself and a figure who seems musically infallible. He's aware that popular music isn't where he seems to fit, and it seems that he doesn't want to be included in that canon, anyway. "There's so much bad stuff written these days that you're inundated with," Earle says. "Most popular music is just terribly, terribly written. I think it's starting to turn back around to where people are paying attention."

To pay attention, you have to go back to your roots. Earle knows this, but feels that "kids" today don't. He's quick to reference Conor Oberst's body of work and Oberst's ability to draw on Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, something today's songwriters should do instead of looking to, well, Conor Oberst. "If you get stuck looking back, though, you end up with the funny-looking pants and jumping around with a banjo," Earle warns jokingly.

Though he seems an affable character, it's Earle's Southern nature that shines through more than any other trait. From his slightly affected drawl to his penchant for family values, Earle comes across as more genuine than some of his peers. It's those same family values that plucked him from New York City and brought him home. "I moved back to Nashville [because] my mom needs more help than she's willing to admit," Earle says. "I remember what she did when she was raising me. I owe my mother the world."

Additionally, Earle's career timeline has been satisfied up to this point. It's not as if he had a number of Americana Music Awards in mind (he has two) or a goal for album sales — that would belie his character. Instead, he just wants to help those who have helped him, as he has for his mother.

"I just said that by the time I was 30, I wanted to be in a position where I could take care of my mama if I need to," he says, "and take care of myself, my girlfriend — take care of the people I love."

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Kristian C. Libman