When I got back from Portland, Oregon’s Pickathon, I had a friend ask me poignantly and point blank: “Who was the one artists that really made an impact on you?” I had seen over a dozen bands over the course of the weekend, most of which had offered solid performances, but without hesitation, my answer to the question was “Justin Townes Earle.”
If I had one word to describe his performances, it would be “Quality.” I had heard his albums before and enjoyed them, but Justin’s live performance is a different animal. He normally travels with only one other musician, and at Pickathon he had traveled by himself. He borrowed a couple of players from the Foghorn Stringband (also performing at Pickathon) for parts of his set, but still the Justin Townes experience was a pretty naked one with just him and his guitar; a feat and true test for any artist. And with his long bony structure, his unique picking and strumming technique with the guitar, a silly REI catalog hat, and a strong voice and superlative songwriting skills, Justin Townes Earle wowed three audiences in three markedly different scenarios during his Pickathon performances.
One of the unique things about the Pickathon festival is that it offers different environments to see the performers in. The first place I saw Justin at was a small barn with about a 100 person capacity and a small stage. He played during the middle of the day when it was scorching hot. Sweat was streaming down my face and the only relief was to step outside into a light breeze, but a packed house and I refused to leave in the face of Justin’s engaging performance.
Justin’s guitar technique is adapted from a method of playing the clawhammer banjo, and it is pure and melodic, enchanting, and completely dispels any ideas of him needing a full band. He bounces around on his skeleton frame, each tiny movement of his legs and feet amplified by the sheer length and quirkiness of his body. During an up-tempo song he would shuffle across the stage in baby steps with his shoulders clenched, and during a slow song he would pace around with big lunges, as if this action helped him alleviate some of the pain and emotion he was feeling from the song. Whether it is a polished and choreographed stage presence or just Justin being Justin, he communicates a true passion for the music, and this is highly communicable with the crowd.
Justin Townes Earle isn’t just a son of someone with a famous name who hired a hotshot band and team of Nashville songwriters to make him a star. Those types usually don’t get past just strumming chords on the guitar, while Justin has gone to the extreme of developing his own advanced guitar style and traveling without a band. And as for songwriting, Justin could probably teach a lot of Nashville’s hit writers for hire a thing or two about soul, and how you can never replace the inspiration of true life experiences with clever phrasing and catchy witticisms.
One of my favorite features of Pickathon was the songwriter workshops, and the organizers had the wisdom to pair up Justin Townes Earle with Ramseur Records recording artist Samantha Crain. This was a great forum where it is just the artists and their guitars, and the audience gets to ask them questions between the songs. Again, in an exposing element for some artists, Justin Townes shined and showed a great amount of candor, candidness, humor, grace, and storytelling ability.
The last place I saw Justin was the main stage, which was similar to your typical large outdoor stage in an open area with a crowd of thousands. As I watched him for the third time that weekend I wondered to myself why I was so mesmerized by this artist, why out of all the smoking bluegrass bands, the big name oldtimers, and the fresh energetic new bands, what it was this jaggedy, awkward guy that was mesmerizing me so, but that word “quality” kept creeping into my mind.
Justin’s affinity for pure songwriters from Woody Guthrie to Lead Belly to Townes Van Zandt is evident and outspoken, and in a short but rich songwriting career, he’s proven that he has at least found the right direction to follow in those footsteps. Missteps are common in music, and so are pitfalls, but one of the most intriguing things for me walking away from the younger Earle’s performances is where this young man is headed, what kind of body of work he could amass.
*Photo also by Kyle Coroneos
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Kyle “Trigger Man” Coroneos is music journalist currently residing in the Texas Hill Country. He is the owner of the very popular music blog, “Saving Country Music.” (www.savingcountrymusic.com). He’s also a musician and a strong advocate for real country music.
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