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Mixing folk and country

BY MARISA WAY | FEBRUARY 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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mp3 sample: Justin Townes Earle

"What I Mean To You"

Justin Townes Earle will play in Iowa City for the first time today — maybe. For several reasons, the 28-year-old musician was unable to recall if he had ever visited before.

“I’m actually not sure,” Earle said. “I’ve been on tour for 13 years, and I’ve done a lot of drugs over those 13 years. I’ve covered a lot of miles, and I don’t remember a whole lot about where I’ve played.”

Earle — whose music is a mixture of folk and country — will play at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., today. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., and the show will start at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Joe Pug, who has been on tour with Earle, will open.

For Earle, music has been ever-present in his life. He is named after Townes Van Zandt, a folksinger who was best known in the late-60s and early ’70s. The Nashville, Tenn., native’s father is Steve Earle, a prominent country-rock musician who has received 14 Grammy nominations, which presents both some benefits and disadvantages for the young musician.

“I think the advantage is that you’re going to get that certain portion of the population that automatically understands once you start playing,” he said. “One of the problems with that is that you don’t get to make bad records, and you don’t get to f— up when somebody actually knows your father.”

Justin Earle started playing music and writing songs around the age of 14.

“I was like most people my age — you’re either a Nirvana fan or a Pearl Jam fan.”

The musician’s début album, The Good Life, came out in 2008, and his second project, Midnight at the Movies, was released almost a year ago. He likes to think that he has grown as a musician between the creation of his first and second albums.

“I’ve tried to keep myself open to all kinds of music, and literature, and movies,” he said. “I think the hope with every record is that it’s a little bit smarter.”

In the past, he struggled with issues beyond recording — mainly drugs. But he kicked the habit and felt a positive response in his music.

“It’s done nothing but good for it,” he said. “I’m not a believer in the fact that you have to be completely f—ed up to write songs.”

Andre Perry, who co-books events at the Mill, said he knew about Earle for quite a while before he booked him to play. While Earle describes himself as a “Southern music preservationist,” Perry had his own take on the musician’s sound.

“He’s part of the young folk movement,” Perry said. “He has one foot in traditional folksong writing, but his aesthetic is much more modern. He’s kind of bringing a new look to folk.”

Earle — whose dream music collaboration would be with country singer and actor Hoyt Axton “because he was weird” — said he will start recording a third album this spring; he hopes to release it by September.

As for what he hopes audience members experience, Earle only knows what he doesn’t want.

“It’s not like that singer/songwriter show where you see some f— standing up onstage staring at his shoes,” he said. “We believe in the strength of the Grand Ole Opry.”


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