Musical progeny undoubtedly bear their expectations more heavily than they lean on namesake for some way, any way in to a cramped and competitive field. As many gifted musicians are starving as brilliant actors are sleeping in their cars off Sunset Strip. Jakob Dylan, no matter his output—and he is underrated as a songwriter—will of course never fit into the same cosmos as his father; nor should he. But he’s recording, performing and, let’s hope, making a good living. You take the gig, anyway you can.
Now, to take a less conspicuous example: Justin Townes Earle. He’s the son of Steve, not Dylan either but a brilliant, heartbreaking songwriter (see: "Guitar Town," "Valentine’s Day," "Jerusalem," "Goodbye," many others). The point is: Steve Earle’s son, even if he plays spoons, would get a listen.
Now, add to that another name, Townes, as in van Zandt, his father’s mentor and personal Jesus, and you’ve got a pedigree that has to be both blessing and curse, indeed. (Steve Earle famously once said that Townes van Zandt was a better songwriter than Dylan and he’d dance on his coffee table and proclaim it to the world. Which of course is not true, but no one ever accused Steve Earle of lacking the passion of his convictions.)
Nor Justin either, based on what he set down in the un-ironically titled The Good Life (Bloodshot Records), his first full-length CD.
In a too-short, 31-minutes running time, Justin both tips his hat to his father—in his meandering, vowel-soaked vocal phrasing, and in the absolute sincerity of his delivery—and yet rebukes him in his more or less traditional county sound. Smooth over an edge or two, a lyric here and there, and Justin is Opry-ready. His sound is far more traditional country than his father’s, and, at least until dad’s recent unsuccessful Washington Square Serenade, more diverse, at least within the country (read: Nashville) ethos. Nashville Opry embraces tradition like a vice grip, and that won’t ever change.
Justin Townes Earle does the sound proud, where his father could care less. And that does not make for inferior work at all. In Justin’s case, it makes The Good Life a fine effort, with a hint of the kind of subversion that would make dad proud.
The Good Life establishes Justin Townes Earle as a country-steeped traditionalist with just enough swagger to push the pedal steel envelope in very interesting ways. And it doesn’t hurt that at age 26 he has earned his outlaw strips, should he ever decide to flaunt them. Like his father, Justin has suffered the devil-call of drugs and addiction. And his music—not surprisingly—is the better for his suffering. When Steve Earle sings, every fix and all those demolished personal relationships skulk beneath every syllable. So too with his son. But for now his son is playing by Nashville’s rules. And so the father’s edges are largely smoothed out in Justin’s work, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Justin is an accomplished songwriter already, and his voice, when it is not eerily echoing his father’s, is spare and honest. In the song "Hard Livin’" he opens the disc with a slightly up tempo country burn, replete with the kind of fiddle you’d hear any night of the week at, say, Austin’s Broken Spoke or just about any honky tonk in music city; it’s a kind of country swing sound that would make even Gatemouth Brown proud.
The title track comes across with the faintest shades of a Jimmie Dale Gilmore yippy vocal, suffused with lap steel guitar that sounds like a fence gate blowing open and shut off a dusty road somewhere in the South.
"Who Am I to Say," the album’s best song, is Earle the younger standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his father: "So you take your pills and poison/Drink yourself to death/Give yourself away until you ain’t got nothing left/And who am I to say there’s anything wrong with that?" His father’s son, no doubt.
Justin is versatile, too. In "South Georgia Sugar Babe," he does country by way of (believe it or not) reggae. And in "What Do you Do When You’re Lonesome?" he channels the Bakersfield sound like he is Merle’s son, not Steve’s.
Shamefully, country music these days tries to be just enough country, and as much pop as it can get away with. Most of it is insipid. There is room for country music that embraces the grit and sentimentality of what used to be called "white man’s blues," but with an experimental bent, one that wants to shape the music even more pointedly around its meetin’-cheatin’-retreatin’ tradition
Justin Townes Earle knows this, and that makes him wise beyond his years. The child can be father of the man.