Justin Townes Earle
On a rainy Nashville Thursday last October, Justin Townes Earle leapt onstage at the famed Ryman Auditorium to accept the 2011 Americana Music Award for Song of the Year. The triumphant evening capped a turbulent twelve months for the gifted young musician categorized by significant hardship as well as notable achievement including debut performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Just one week later, Earle retreated to the western mountains of North Carolina to record his next album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now – an intriguing title given the importance of change in Earle’s approach to art. “I think it’s the job of the artist to be in transition and constantly learning more,” he says. “The new record is completely different than my last one, Harlem River Blues. This time I’ve gone in a Memphis-soul direction.”
Those who’ve followed Earle’s growth since releasing his debut EP Yuma in 2007 won’t be surprised he’s shooting off in another direction. For an artist whose list of influences runs the gamut from Randy Newman to Woody Guthrie, Chet Baker to the Replacements, and Phil Ochs to Bruce Springsteen, categories are useless.
“Great songs are great songs,” Earle says. “If you listen to a lot of soul music, especially the Stax Records stuff, the chord progressions are just like country music. And just like country music, soul music began in the church, so it has its roots in the same place.”
Perhaps then it’s also not surprising Earle chose a converted church in Asheville, NC to record Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Recorded completely live (no overdubs) over a four-day period with Harlem River Blues co-producer Skylar Wilson, the album sheds the rockabilly bravado of previous records in favor of a confident, raw, and vulnerable sound. Says Earle, “the whole idea was to record everything live, making everything as real as it could be, and putting something out there that will hopefully stand the test of time and space.”
The result: songs like “Down on the Lower East Side” and “Unfortunately, Anna” are equally timely and timeless. The former finds Earle channeling Closing Time era Tom Waits while the latter echoes the dirges of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. That said, gentle heartbreakers like the album’s title track and “Am I That Lonely Tonight” are uniquely Earle, solidifying his role as one of his generation’s greatest songwriters.
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now comes out
March 27th via Bloodshot Records.
Like many artists before him, Cory Chisel first connected with the power of song – and the spellbinding possibilities of live performance – through the music he heard in church. The gospel's rich vernacular of loss and redemption also informed his innate poetic sense and lyrical range. "For most of my life," he says, "my dad was a Baptist minister, so I learned a lot about being a showman, and I learned a lot about music. Many of the hymns from church still are the most beautiful songs I know. I'm thankful for growing up where stories and the pursuit of happiness were on everybody's mind. I think I'm still trying to achieve the same euphoria I felt at a very young age, when I would be completely taken over by these rhythms and these sounds and these stories."
An equally potent influence on Chisel's worldview and wellspring of musical storytelling is the American heartland from which he hails. Based in Appleton, WI, where he's lived for almost twenty years. His family's roots, on both sides, reach about 500 miles north and west to Babbitt, Minnesota and neighboring Ely, beside the pristine Boundary Waters, the largest wilderness preserve east of the Rockies. The vast, open spaces and clear, deep lakes of the wild north are ingrained in Chisel's songs, which sound as if they come to him as naturally as breathing.
In an upbringing where he was largely sheltered from pop music, Chisel's fluency with music comes in great measure from always having played it with his family, for as long as he can remember. One of his grandfathers had nine brothers and, he notes, "they're all great guitar players, and half of them play harmonica too." He also cites his Uncle Roger, a blues musician – whose epic record collection exposed him to Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and countless others – as a chief source of inspiration. "He was a musical force," says Cory. "I always felt like I possessed something similar, that I understood the exorcism I saw him receiving through music."