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Songwriter Justin Townes Earle, Gone at 38

Songwriter Justin Townes Earle, a Nashville native and a modern blues and country artist of rare talent, has died at 38 years old. He was the son of iconic Americana artist Steve Earle and Carol Ann Hunter Earle, his third wife. Named after Steve’s troubled friend Townes Van Zandt, Justin Townes channeled no small amount of darkness into songs that brimmed with life and old-world swing.


The news broke Sunday evening on the artist’s Facebook page with the statement: “It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin. So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin.” No time or cause of death has yet been released.


Earle grew up in his mother’s home, largely estranged from his father for the first decade of his life. He started a couple of bands - ragtime and rock and roll - out of Nashville before launching a recording career with the EP Yuma on Bloodshot Records in 2007. Eight albums later, he most recently put outThe Saint Of Lost Causes in 2019. He was name the Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2009 Americana Honors and Awards, and his album title track “Harlem River Blues” was Song of the Year for 2011. 


Along the way, Earle struggled with some of the same addictions, including heroin, that beset his father, something he was candid about in numerous interviews. In 2010 he discussed getting fired from Steve Earle’s own band in his teens because he couldn’t stay sober. “At the time, I'd been a junkie for a good portion of my life,” he said. “It's kind of one of those things you just grow to expect when you have that lifestyle. You get fired. You lose things. You go to jail. You just kind of get used to it. It happens, even if it is family.”


Earle has said he was moved to want to write and perform music upon hearing Leadbelly at age 12, and his early music feels rooted in country blues and the honky tonk of Hank Williams. In the past ten years, we hear more moody electric embellishments, and Earle was admired in indie rock circles. But he was primarily a perceptive storyteller who made the hard and dark sides of life relatable and worthy of empathy. A fan of Woody Guthrie, he confronted injustice in his music as well, crafting the plight of Flint, Michigan’s poisoned drinking water into the snapping country rock tune “Don’t Drink The Water” on his most recent album.


“I believe as humans, we lose much more than we win,” Earle told newspaper The Scottsman in 2015. “And I realise that, when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing extraordinary about me. I just know how to lay words out. That’s what I know how to do in life, the rest of it I’m still pretty unsure about.”


Justin Earle carved his own path and became a veteran of the most prestigious stages in country and roots music, including the Grand Ole Opry, Bonnaroo and the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. He left behind a vast number of admirers among fans, critics and fellow musicians.



UPDATE: This statement arrived Monday afternoon from Earle's label New West Records: "Justin passed away in his home in Nashville and a private service is being held next week.  A memorial will be planned for a later date in 2021. Justin is survived by his wife, Jennifer Earle, daughter Etta St. James Earle, his mother Carol Ann Earle, his father Steve Earle and his brothers Ian and John Henry Earle."


UPDATE: Nashville's WKRN reports Tuesday that Metro Police told them an autopsy is pending but that prelimiary investigation suggests Earle's death was the result of a "probable drug overdose." He was found 

in an Acklen Park Drive apartment, the report said. 

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org