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 Amazon, received four stars in Rolling Stone and found a sweet spot in the blackened hearts of fans and critics alike. GQ Magazine named him one of the 25 best dressed men in the world in 2010. 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—and it’s great. 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 labour movement in classic folk singer style over some heartbreaking pedal steel from Calexico’s Paul Niehaus. With percussive guitar, killer stand up 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.
Picture by Joshua Black Wilkins.