(Long Shots, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, asks some of our favorite artists to interview one another. Think of it as listening in on a good conversation.)
Jason Isbell: How’s the tour going, Justin?
Justin Townes Earle: It’s going pretty good I think.
JI: How did you like sitting in a van for 24 hours this week?
JTE: It was actually one of the most relaxing times I’ve had in the past two years of touring. Nobody could call me because my phone died and I just sat there watched the Simpsons all day.
JI: That sounds pretty nice; we should’ve followed you guys.
JTE: How was your Oklahoma City?
JI: You know it was pretty good. I just slept in Oklahoma City, but then on the way back here we stopped at a casino in New Mexico in Albuquerque and I won about $350 bucks playing cards. I was pretty happy
JTE: You can’t beat that.
JI: Yeah it was a good thing. So yeah, alright the tours going well… I wrote some questions down; you want me to ask you one of them?
JTE: Sure go for it.
Continue Reading After The Jump…
JI: Alright, I’ll get the ball rolling. So I’m wondering, growing up with a parent in the music business and on the road all the time, I’ve wondered about this a lot myself, what’s your take on having kids yourself? Would you do it while you’re still touring or would you want to wait until all that was over with?
JTE: You know I think it’s one of those things..I think it’s completely doable to have kids and be a touring musician and still be a good father, because I know people that have done it. But they seem to be extraordinary people and I don’t think I’m one of them.
JI: That kinda how I feel about it too. (laughs)
JTE: Yeah, I am my father’s son so I don’t know how good of a…I think if I did knock my girlfriend up, then I would probably quit touring.
JI: Yeah, or at least cut it down to a minimum for me I think.
JTE: Yeah, yeah exactly.
JI: Yeah, I do know people who have done it well, I also know people who have done it horribly badly.
JTE: Horribly badly.
JI: And the people who have done a bad job with it really kinda remind me of myself more than the people who’ve done a good job with it.
JTE: Yeah, I’d have to agree with that. I’m the same way, I’m the same way. So, speaking of growing up, you grew up in like in the Muscle Shoals area, correct?
JI: Yup, yeah I grew up probably about a half an hour from Muscle Shoals in Mountain Hill out in the cow fields.
JTE: What was it like growing up with that particular music history with the soul and the blues vibe of the muscle shoals sound? How does that translate into what you do now?
JI: At first it was something that we all kinda rebelled against, because all the people who were, you know middle aged folk, sometimes the same people who were telling us we needed to get real jobs, were the people who were telling us we needed to pay more attention to the Muscle Shoals music you know. So we felt like we were cooler and a little bit more punk rock then that. And then when I got up to be fifteen or sixteen and started actually playing out in bars and clubs and stuff around town, the ones that would let me in. It was really strange because a lot of those guys were still doing that, they were still playing pickup gigs and they’re still doing it today, you know. You can still go see David Hood or Spooner (Oldham) or somebody playing at the Holiday Inn every once in awhile on a Thursday night you know. So when I got out and started actually meeting those guys, that’s when I really started doing my homework and going back and finding out the work that they’ve done just because I liked them so much personally. And now it’s become an obsession over the last fifteen years or so and I’ve really gotten into it terribly. And I find out, you know that even when I try not to sound like I’m from muscle shoals it still comes out that way.
JTE: I suffer from the same thing with the Nashville thing.
JI: Yeah, you know I try to be modern and hip and young and I still wind up sounding like a sixty year old man from Alabama.
JTE: And God bless you for it.
JI: Yes, I’ll take it now, I’m not gonna fight against it anymore. Let’s see, I got some more here. That kinda goes into umm…the kinda stuff you play really to me has a real old-time feel to it, you know, and it feels like a lot of old mountain music that I grew up with that my granddad played and a lot of really old country and even you know some gospel kinda stuff in there. And I’m wondering, I feel like you personally, you know, when I actually spend time around you, I see you more as kind of a punk rock guy and, you know, I’m not just talking about the tattoos or whatever, but just from knowing you over the years. What do you feel like are the similarities between those two spirits or those two kinds of music — how do those lines cross really?
JTE: I think they cross in the simplest fashion just because musicians have always been looked at as outlaws, and somehow through history, I don’t exactly know how it happened, I don’t know how people ended up translating Johnny cash into punk rock. But it ended up happening and it was just this attitude thing when these guys were coming up back in the day you had a bunch of rough and tumble folks like Charlie Pool and Dock Boggs. The kind of characters that may have been from the hills, but they’d shoot your ass in a second. They were rough, they drank, they didn’t give a shit what they said to anybody or what anybody said to them, they were gonna do what they wanted to do. And I think you know even though Dock Boggs did use his wife as a shield in a gunfight in Bristol Tennessee, I think he pulled off punk rock a little classier than Sid Vicious did.
JI: Right. Yeah I guess you’re right, the classiness of it is a little bit different, because I know a lot of those old guys and they’re just as grizzled and just as hard as my opinion of Johnny Rotten would be, but they still seem to be kinda gentlemen about it you know.
JTE: Yeah. Yeah I think that there’s an old time feel about ‘em that still says like, when the suns out you say yes ma’am and yes sir, and when the sun goes down it’s fuck ‘em. Where in punk rock its fuck ‘em all the time.
JI: All day long, yup.
JTE: So, when you’re out on the road, I mean what do you do to keep from going crazy out here?
JI: (laughs) That’s a good question. I try to surround myself with people that I can stand. That’s something that I think goes into the… you know people say why do always want to have a band and why do you put so much emphasis on the fact that this is a band record and this is your band rather than this is your record as a solo artist. For me I think if I was out here with a bunch of hired guns and a bunch of guys that I didn’t know personally, if I had auditions and brought in the old stuff up and play the material best, you know however they do that, it would drive me crazy I think the isolation of it would drive me crazy. It’s more important for me to be around people that I actually like to be around. You know rather than touring with people I don’t know very much and probably never will know. You know also I try to do things that keep my hands busy. I try to read as much as possible, and I really try to play pool when I can. I didn’t get much time to do that on this trip.
JTE: I saw that cue come out
JI: Yeah it comes out, it’ll come out again, it’ll definitively come out again. Little things you know like we were talking yesterday about technology and about how you know having the laptop in the van and having the iPod really makes it a lot easier. I remember touring and I’m sure you do too when nobody had a cell phone and you know you had to stop at a payphone to make a call, and now a days that just seems so maddening to me – it seems back when there was nothing to occupy your time I don’t understand how anybody dealt with it.
JTE: I pulled out a roadmap the other day and I was trying to…I used to live by a roadmap and I couldn’t even figure out how to read the damn thing the other day I’ve been on the GPS so long.
JI: Yeah that stuff’s addicting, man. It’s addicting. We went to Canada last month, and as sure as we crossed the border the GPS shut down and it was like, you ever see that Saturday night live sketch where the teleprompter goes down on the morning show and they all start eating each other? It’s like Lord of The Flies all of a sudden cause the teleprompter’s not working.
JTE: I love that show
JI: It’s the truth.
JTE: I got a question. You are one of the best guitar players that I’ve ever watched play, and when you sit down and write, do you find it difficult to not come up with like when you’re writing lyrics to not sit there and concentrate on this guitar part instead of the lyrics? How do you separate the two apart?
JI: That’s a good question. And I appreciate that. I think lately, the last few years I really tried to write a lot on piano because I’m not a very good piano player. Also a lot of times ill write when I don’t have an instrument. I’ll write like, in the van or when I’m driving, I’ll write and just sing into my cell phone and record it and then arrange later you know, demo it later you know. I definitely started out writing more with just the guitar you know and trying to come up with a chord progression and you know a lot of the times it might wind up sounding like Steely Dan which is not what you want you know.
JTE: Not at all (laughs)
JI: not that I don’t like their music but that’s not what you’re going for you know, were not trying to hear that. And I think lately I’ve been really trying to go about it in a little bit of a more alternative to the guitar way of doing things, sometimes I’ll just write lyrics first and then go back and try to put music to it after the lyrics are already on the paper.
JTE: I write ninety percent of my lyrics driving almost all the time. I guess I need something else to occupy my other brain, while the same part of my brain stuck driving.
JI: Yeah me too, it’s almost like if I’m too focused on anything in particular, playing guitar or, you know if I’m too specifically focused on the song and the process of writing the song, I’ll have a hard time finding that place I need to be and actually get it to come out.
JTE: Yeah, remove.
JI: It’s like if you look directly at a woman for too long you’ll freak her out.
JI: Do you have any timelines in your mind, do you have any specific goals you feel like you have to achieve by a certain point. Like I know this guy at home that was in a band in the eighties on MCA, he’s an older guy now in his mid forties, I think he might be fifty now, but he always said that if he didn’t have a song that charted by the time he was thirty years old he was gonna find something else to do. Low and behold on his thirtieth birthday they had a song that made it number fifteen on that particular day. He was stuck being a lifelong musician, I don’t know if he’s necessarily happy about that now, because that’s about the highest that he had charted. I was wondering you know if you had any specific, like I should do this by the time I’m this age or I should get to this point by this particular point in my career.
JTE: Well I think you know early when I started off, when I was in my late teens and really getting into doing this I had these really big ideas of where I should be and where I needed to be at certain points. And one thing that my wife in particular had taught me through stumbles and homelessness and drug addictions is that I can make all the plans that I want but it aint up to me. I’m one of those people who that feel like I’m operating on borrowed time due to the way that I’ve treated myself and the way that I lived. But I don’t feel any rush, I’m trying not to set any timelines for myself, because I’m already one of those freaks who writes like, you know I just had a record come out and I’ve already written another one. I have enough time keeping up with my manic mind, let alone trying to plan what my manic mind is gonna do.
JI: Right, right I got you. I’m kinda of the same mindset on that I definitely thought at one point that I needed to do this by this point. But it never works out that way, it usually works out better you know I never really had a goal of going to Spain in any point in time, and that was far better for me than any of the particular goals that I set for myself when I started off. How is your health by the way? Do you feel like you’ve regenerated at this point?
JTE: Yeah, I feel like I’m doing pretty good. It’s hard to tell, you know doing as many shows as we tend to do, as you know healthy is a relative term. There’s only so many fucking Frito chili pies and waffle houses you can eat before you know you’re probably not gonna be healthy ever again.
JI: Right, you’re probably right.
JTE: I’m trying to figure how to watch my eating out here, because the whole Buddy Miller thing really scares the shit out of me.
JI: Yeah it did me too man, it did me too.
JTE: Because Buddy Miller is one the cleanest living people I know and that’s just man that’s bad. Its Waffle House. He has a saying that all a man needs is a bed and a woman to call him sweetheart. That was his excuse for eating at waffle house for all the years he was doing it.
JI: Right now, we’re somewhere between Flagstaff and Phoenix were probably right in the middle of the two. Where you at Justin?
JTE: I’m still in Flagstaff. I’m getting ready to pick up that fool that I call a sideman.
JI: Yeah you better go get him; he’ll go off and get lost somewhere.
JTE: I know they do that, damn banjo players.
JI: Yeah the claw hammer it never leaves them.
JTE: That’s right
JI: We’re playing tonight at the club congress in Tucson, probably stay in the old gangster hotel. You ever play that place Justin?
JTE: I haven’t, I’m looking forward to it.
JI: You’ll like it a lot, its old school. Was it Dillinger that was caught there? I think it was Dillinger because the top two floors of the hotel caught on fire when he was hiding out up there, while the fire was going he had to come out and when he came out all the policeman were out there with their Tommy guns. Yeah it’s a cool place.
JTE: Okay boys
JI: Ya’ll be careful