As evidenced by his last Milwaukee show, Justin Townes Earle is no-nonsense when it comes to writing and performing songs. He tells it like it is and doesn’t dance around the point he wants to make. In May, the Nashville based singer-songwriter released his eighth full length album, The Saint Of Lost Causes. It’s a more outward-looking record than his very personal 2017 album, Kids In The Street. On the album, Earle sings about the state of the country.
As a press release describes, Earle sings about the “the disenfranchised and the downtrodden, the oppressed and the oppressors, the hopeful and the hopeless, as well as their geography.” Some of the record is based on historical facts (“Flint City Shake It,” which comments on the water troubles facing the song’s eponymous city), while others are more fabricated, such as “Appalachian Nightmare,” which is about a drugstore-cowboy-turned-cop-killer who is praying for forgiveness.
Prior to his performance at the Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall (in the Marcus Center For The Performing Arts) this Saturday, Milwaukee Record caught up with the songwriter to discuss his craft.
Milwaukee Record: You’re playing a new venue in the Wilson Theater. I imagine it’s exciting to get to play a different venue. Can you talk about that?
Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, it is. It is nice to be able to see different venues. I mean, you fall in love with certain venues in certain cities that you always want to go back to, and you get disappointed when they’re not there. Milwaukee’s one of those where I haven’t had a problem where I’m absolutely stuck on. It’s not like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, or First Avenue in Minneapolis kind of thing. I just haven’t found not one yet. But I also haven’t played in Milwaukee all that much.
MR: What do you recall of the first time you played Milwaukee?
JTE: It was the Pabst Theater opening for my dad when I was a teenager.
MR: That’s quite a while ago.
JTE: Yeah, like 20 years ago.
MR: It must be exciting to have that kind of history with playing a city over that many years.
JTE: Yeah, I’m glad that I have it, because it all adds up to experience knowing how this all works. Unfortunately, it’s like these days, there’s a lot of people in the system that don’t know how it works.
MR: Your previous release is one of your most personal records, but this one is very outward, looking at the state of the country. Why did you decide to shift focus?
JTE: I think that it was just time, it was the right time. And also, even though this record is very outward-looking, it’s all subjects that I take very personally that hurt my heart, make me angry at us as a country.
MR: Does having a family make you more conscious of the world around you?
JTE: Definitely. I think for sure it does. I’m definitely worried about what’s going to be left for my daughter.
MR: What the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself as songwriter after making your most recent albums?
JTE: I think that I’ve definitely learned to become a more patient songwriter, and not force things. I think it took me eight months to write “Appalachian Nightmare,” and “Saint Of Lost Causes” [took] probably like six months to write. I want everything to be right in them. I don’t want to look back on songs and be like, “oh, I should’ve said this, this way.” You know? I’ve never looked back at one of my songs and regretted what I said, but there’s many of my older songs that I kind of overlooked things where I think I could’ve said it better.
MR: A lot of the lyrics, you tell it as is without passing judgment. As a songwriter, when is it better to be an observer rather than protester when it comes to the story-based songs?
JTE: I think it’s when you’re genuinely ready to be a protester. I mean, I’m not necessarily being a protester. I deal with just getting a point across, you know? Just like a solid point. I’m not saying “down with the man.” I think there are some people who are great protest songwriters. I don’t think that I will ever be specifically a good protest songwriter because things that I feel like protesting, I get angry about. I don’t think it’s necessarily good to write a song in anger.
MR: Do you think it’s good to leave some ambiguity for the listener to make up their own mind?
JTE: Yeah. Absolutely.
MR: What was the most surprising, or revealing, song for you to write for this album?
JTE: That, I don’t really know. I mean, it just all came to the idea for the record itself, because I write my records to be records. The idea for it just all kind of popped in my head at once. I don’t remember any particular instance, but I mean, it was definitely a collection of police shootings, and wrongful arrests, and all kinds of things like that, that kind of brought my attention more to the public.
MR: What’s next for you after this tour?
JTE: I’m not sure yet. I’m working on a couple of projects that I’m not at liberty to talk about right at the moment. That’s because the people that I’m working with don’t want it talked about that, but it’s not going to be my record. It’s going to be working with some other people, but not musicians. That will send your mind spinning.
MR: Any places you’re looking to visit during your stop in Milwaukee?
JTE: No. I’m pretty bus bound these days. I stay on the bus, but you know, something comes up every now and then.