On his seventh full-length album Kids in the Street, Justin Townes Earle takes on topics of both societal and personal importance with strong lyrics and a folk sound reminiscent of the era before the genre had broken completely away from the ancestor it shares with jazz and the blues.
Despite the traditional influence, Earle positions himself as a modern folk singer with this Kids In the Street. His focus is on urban life and practical living. “Champagne Corolla” turns an unlikely car into a sex symbol on a track that celebrates the “middle class queen” behind its wheel. “Same Old Stagolee,” an update on the early century classic made most famous by Mississippi John Hurt, addresses modern urban violence in a way that both condemns such actions while making it clear past generations were just as guilty of similar offenses. The title track describes the gentrification of Nashville. While it’s clearly written from the point of view of a man who’s moved on to better things, he includes the experiences of others who were priced out of the place they’ve lived for a lifetime. It’s written as a personal reaction with carefully placed details the expand the scope of the story.
Introspection is another of Earle’s gifts displayed on Kids In the Street. “What’s She Crying For” explores themes of empathy and lust from across the room from a devastated stranger and “Trouble Is” captures the uniquely complex ache a man of poor character feels when he knows someone’s unfair assumptions about him are, in fact, correct. “15-25” is uncomfortably relatable for any calm adult who was once a hotheaded young person while “There Go a Fool” goes even further force the listener to join in. It’s a song written in the second person about a man out of love and out of money, a man who Earle practically begs the audience to empathize with when he sings the song to “you.”
What’s somewhat less effective are the two tracks from the perspective of a man wooing a woman. “Maybe a Moment” and “If I Was The Devil” are fine sets of lyrics, the former rather charming, but they don’t contain the level of insight and emotion present on the rest of the album. Instead try “Faded Valentine,” where the songwriter experiences the return of long since forgotten rage and frustration upon discovering an old love letter.
Earle talked with Glide about these tracks, some legends who influenced them, and a shared a few admiring laughs about his father’s combative personality.
What made you turn away from the outlaw country sound and why head toward classic roots from there?
If people dig back into my earliest records, they were very based in classic country and blues. But I veered away from it simply because I’m an artist; I’m not a country musician. I make what I want when I want, basically. The idea of getting back to this Memphis sound and the melding of music that happened in the Southeastern United States is definitely something I always look forward to working with.
In the spirit of making something new out of that melded Southern sound, you did an update on the tale of folk’s most famous murderer in “Same Old Stagolee.” Tell me about the issue you’re addressing there.
I’m addressing an issue that modern urban kids have to contest with. In the neighborhood I grew up in, if you crossed over Cowan Street, you were going to get in trouble. You weren’t gonna get killed, but you were gonna get your ass kicked really fast. We have all those neighborhoods. Go ask a Crip what happens if he crossed Western Avenue. It’s based on this whole idea that we’ve got this whole world so screwed up that kids are getting killed over crossing streets and dating girls from the wrong neighborhood.
Here you connect that to being a new strain of the same old violence.
Absolutely. The original Stagolee story, Stagolee kills Billy for knocking his Stetson hat off his head. Something absolutely just as stupid as a neighborhood crossing.
You also try your hand at crooning on “Faded Valentine.” Let me ask why you waited until more than a minute into the song to reveal that the relationship that “Valentine” represented had gone so horribly wrong at some point.
When I wrote “Faded Valentine,” I was kind of thinking “what would Lucinda Williams do?” Lucinda Williams likes to have this reveal. That was kind of the idea. And I like art to be as open ended as it possibly can. I think it’s best when people can see what I’m getting at but they can maybe find something else.
On the title track “Kids In The Street” you talk about the gentrification of the neighborhood you grew up in and point out that “it wasn’t better then” but it still kills you to see the way things have changed. How do you balance those emotions?
You know, it’s very difficult. We have to, as human beings, realize that change is coming. And it is. It’s a ridiculous thing how many people are standing around saying “Dammit I loved this neighborhood when it was shittier.” Which is something I totally get. It doesn’t make sense when you actually say it out loud to yourself. It’s kind of strange, but we’re getting to that point where we’re realizing that neighborhoods are people, they’re not things and structures. The people build those structures and create the little businesses, but first and foremost it’s the people. Especially if you grew up like I did in a very racially mixed neighborhood, mostly black, and now you look at it and there’s no black people living there. It’s a drastic change for 30 years. It’s just a completely different world now. Living in New York, Manhattan has made a change better than any place that I’ve ever lived. I met an old man who was born and raised on Avenue A and 12th and still lives in the same apartment his great-grandparents lived in. He said the one pure truth is change. Nothing’s going to be the same in 10 years.
Changing neighborhoods are a real emotional subject for the Earle family. Your dad covered some similar ground from a different perspective when he mulled setting fire to a Walmart.
(Laughing) That’s my dad, he’s the firebrand. He still calls me and says “Hey, I think I’m gonna write a song about methamphetamine where the cook all the ingredients at a Walmart and a shotgun.” I’m like, “Okay, Dad.” I love it. It’s like having a father who at the same time is a really smart, ornery kid. He just gets so excited about ruffling people’s feathers.
He has quite a few of those provocative songs. I like that one particularly, the way he’s psyching himself up to detonate a bomb but at the same time you know it’s not happening. The other song on this album with a ‘kids in the street’ vibe is the lead single “Champagne Corolla.” The band on that track is so dynamic but let’s first talk about the appeal of a sensible woman.
Well, it was just looking at that Chuck Berry style of songwriting, that very targeted songwriting written specifically at a certain age group. And it’s just like the classic car song. But every car song like that I’ve ever heard, everybody is either a poor boy in a beat up truck or they’re a rich a guy in a fancy car. And they need a poor girl or a rich girl. So this was I guess a bit of my father coming out. I was gonna write a song about a semi-compact Japanese sedan and a middle-class woman. Which maybe doesn’t exist anymore.
You have a similar message on “Short Hair Woman” but to me the most interesting dynamic on this album is the one between the singer and a woman he’s never spoken to on “What’s She Crying For.” How much does people watching help the songwriting process?
As far as I know it’s vital to my writing process. I’ve looked outside for inspiration and internalized it for years. I think on this record I do a little bit more looking out. Seeing average everyday people just doing their thing was the crux in writing my songs. Even if I was just looking at somebody and made up a story on the face they made.
You’re looking outward at this woman you don’t even know but it’s really the songwriter we’re learning about in this track.
In a lot of ways, there’s something in the songwriter that has him intrigued by this girl but I don’t think he’s 100 percent sure it’s for the right reasons. He says at the end he’s not in the habit of taking ‘strays’ home, but he never says that he’s not gonna.
Check out more with Trevor Christian and his pulse on the Americana scene on Country Pocket on WUSB which airs at 6pm Mondays on WUSB 90.1 Stony Brook
Justin Townes Earle has penned his “career best songs” with Kids in the Street and plays Saturday June 3rd at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles with openers The Sadies & Sammy Brue. Head over here for more information and tickets.