Performance Friday, December 2, 2011 | 10 PM

Justin Townes Earle

Zankel Hall
Justin Townes Earle is an anomaly—rockin’ and reelin’ at times, sweet and slow at others. He’s Nashville North, all set up in lower Manhattan now—just like his hero Woody Guthrie—with twang and charm intact.


  • Justin Townes Earle
  • Amanda Shires, Fiddle
  • Bryn Davies, Bass


  • Justin Townes Earle

    Justin Townes Earle is an anomaly. He’s tall as the day is long, all angles and elbows and a hard stare, both welcoming and deadly serious. He’s Nashville North, all set up in lower Manhattan now—just like his hero Woody Guthrie, with twang and charm intact.

    That hard working earnestness has paid off, to say the least. Justin won the Best New and Emerging Artist at the 2009 Americana Music Awards. His record Midnight at the Movies was named one of the best records of last year by, received four stars in Rolling Stone, and found a sweet spot in the blackened hearts of fans and critics alike. And as if that weren’t enough, GQ named Justin one of the 25 best-dressed men in the world. He also appeared on HBO’s Treme with his dad, troubadour Steve Earle, on whose Grammy Award–winning Townes record Justin also guests.

    The aforementioned Woody Guthrie once said, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” On Harlem River Blues, Justin chose the simple route. The record’s not a wall of sound produced to the rafters. It’s rockin’ and reelin’ at times, sweet and slow at others. Like good fried chicken, a well-cut suit, and a handmade guitar, there’s heaven to be found in the beautifully crafted simpler things.

    Compared to the much-lauded Midnight at the Movies, Harlem River Blues is more mature and increasingly nuanced, while still embracing the raw voice and clean sound of previous standout tracks like “Mama’s Eyes.” Harlem River Blues kicks off hot with the title track’s choir of backing singers and electric guitar, slow dances through a decrepit tenement on “One More Night in Brooklyn,” and swings à la Jerry Lee Lewis on “Move Over Mama.” “Working for the MTA” is a modern day railway ballad, embracing the labor movement in classic folksinger style over some heartbreaking pedal steel from Calexico’s Paul Niehaus. With percussive guitar, killer standup bass lines by Bryn Davies, and a guest appearance from Jason Isbell, this record hums along like a 6 train jumpin’ the tracks and heading straight for the Tennessee state line.

    Harlem River Blues straddles not only the Mason-Dixon, but time itself. As versed in Mance Lipscomb as he is in M. Ward and sporting Marc Jacobs suspenders, Justin Townes Earle is a man beyond eras. With Harlem River Blues, a record that’s perfect for late–Indian summer nights on either the front porch or fire escape, Justin’s found yet another way to be a timeless original.

    More Info


Harlem River Blues
Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues | Bloodshot Records

Jeff Tamarkin on Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle just recently finished recording his next album, which he’s chosen to call Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. A most intriguing title, considering that change is at the very core of this gifted young singer-songwriter’s approach to his art. “I think that it’s the job of the artist to be in transition and constantly learn more,” he says. “The new record is completely different than my last one, Harlem River Blues. This time I’ve gone in a Memphis-soul direction.”

Those who have been following Earle’s growth since the release of his debut EP Yuma in 2007 won’t likely be surprised that he’s shooting off in another direction on his next release. For an artist whose list of influences runs the gamut from Randy Newman to Woody Guthrie, Chet Baker to the Replacements, and Phil Ochs to Bruce Springsteen, categories are useless. He even contributed a track to a recent Buddy Holly tribute album.

“Great songs are great songs,” Earle says. “If you listen to a lot of soul music, especially the Stax Records stuff, the chord progressions are just like country music. And just like country music, soul music began in the church, so it has its roots in the same place. The only difference was the dividing line of skin color.”

Justin—whose dad is the highly acclaimed singer-songwriter and actor Steve Earle—grew up surrounded by a wide variety of music. His greatest exposure to soul occurred, he says, “because I lived in a mostly black neighborhood when I was a kid. When I went over to my friends’ houses for dinner, their parents listened to Al Green and Sam and Dave and people like that, so it’s something that I grew up with. Some of my favorite music in the world came out of Memphis between 1955 and 1966.”

Last year’s Harlem River Blues—whose title track recently took Song of the Year honors at the Americana Music Awards—drew from another genre that has influenced Earle: gospel. “I noticed the church connection between black and white music a long time ago, and it took me a while to figure out how I was gonna do it,” he says. “What I did was take the Carter Family from eastern Tennessee and the Staple Singers from western Tennessee, and I built Harlem River Blues around what I thought those two groups would be doing if they were making records right now.”

Earle, who splits most of his non-touring time these days between New York City and Nashville, says the audience at his Zankel Hall concert will get a sneak preview of his new tunes, but they’ll likely hear some surprises too. “I’m a fairly unpredictable performer,” he says. And his fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

—Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of JazzTimes magazine.

Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with WFUV.

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