Raised in Lanett, AL, Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr began his training as a singer before he could talk. Blackberry Smoke have released three studio albums and a live album, and recently finished work on their fourth studio effort with producer Brendan O’Brien. You can follow them on Twitter here and on Facebook here.
Justin Townes Earle just makes great music. Period. The first time I heard him was on WMLB 1690 AM, a publicly-funded station in Atlanta that consistently plays the best music in the universe. I’ve become aware of so many great artists by tuning in from time to time. People like Justin, Phosphorescent, Jonathan Wilson, Sturgill Simpson, etc. Yes, that is a shameless plug for a diamond in the rough, so to speak. We’re lucky there are still stations like that on the dial.
Of course, I was very interested in Justin’s songwriting and singing, simply because of the importance of his legendary father Steve Earle, not to mention his legendary middle-namesake, the late, great Townes Van Zandt. But even with that intimidating pedigree, I was still a little late to the party. Harlem River Blues (2010) was the first album of Earle’s that I purchased. It became an instant favorite, so I worked my way backwards through the rest of his catalogue. The fact that there are artists like Justin who continue to write songs and albums like these makes me feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. His fifth and latest album, Single Mothers, shows how much respect he has for the sensibilities and traditions of country music, as well as the importance of detailed storytelling.
The title track is a blues waltz of the highest order. A thousand bands could attempt a song like this and fail, because tasteful playing and the “less is more” principle just can’t be taught. You’re born with it. Or you’re not. This album is tasteful, but not too tasteful. “My Baby Drives” has a little greasy three-chord swagger. The third song on an album should always make you dance. This one does.
The lyrics of “Today and a Lonely Night” (“My baby just called and said/the midtown tunnel is open/so let’s ride/but I said darling/I just don’t feel much like/going to Brooklyn tonight”) sorta makes me think of Tom Waits, which is never a bad thing. It’s the kind of song that feels comforting whether it’s about Brooklyn or Birmingham. And then there’s “Picture in a Drawer.” Good Lord, this one is great: “I’m not drowning/I’m just seeing how long I can stay down.” A finger-picked acoustic guitar, pedal steel and a single vocal crying out to Mama about the hopelessness of the situation. This song is just stunning and is probably my favorite on the album. Though there’s plenty of competition.
“White Gardenias” has a sweet, lilting chorus reminiscent of Gram Parsons’ beautiful “Brass Buttons” and, like that song, it’s a beautiful lament for a woman who has slipped away. “Wanna Be a Stranger” and “Time Shows Fools” are great songs about shame and lessons learned. People who buy songs about jet skis and spring break will understand songs like this after they move out of mom and dad’s house. Perhaps then they’ll get jobs, earn some bucks and buy more songs like these. There I go again, sounding like my dad. Or maybe Justin’s dad.
“It’s Cold in This House” is another heartstring-puller. It’s funny, the “I can’t find my phone” lyric shook me up in a way I wasn’t anticipating, which just speaks to Justin’s talent. After all, an album like this can put you somewhere else. Not in the past, specifically, just somewhere else. So many blues singers, from Charley Patton to Sleepy John Estes to Lightnin’ Hopkins, would reference a specific politician, car or event that would’ve have been relevant to their different eras. Maybe that doesn’t happen so much nowadays, or maybe I don’t pay as much attention as I should.
“Burning Pictures” is a great way to close the album. A Some Girls-era Stones-y rave-up about someone who’s obviously addicted to falling in love, this one’s a nice little shot of adrenalin. The musicians really open it up here, another great example of them playing this music so tastefully. I’ve not had the opportunity to see Justin live, but judging by how beautifully loose and open these performances are, I can only assume that he and his band probably stretch out and let it breathe at a live show.
The state and/or fate of “country” music and its links with Americana or roots music, and its relationship to pop music and the mainstream, or whatever one might want to call these things, has become a tired conversation, for sure. But as long as there are artists like Justin making records like this one, I think it will all be fine. Rest easy.