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Justin Townes Earle steps away from the family tree

Forget, for a second, that Justin Townes Earle's middle name comes from a revered songwriter and that his last name comes from another. When you listen to his songs, you know instantly that he's a talent who stands completely on his own.

Sure, his voice sometimes betrays his genes. But while dad Steve is rooted in the twang of Texas soil with a splash of Celtic rain, Justin hews more toward ragtime, jug band music and Paul Westerberg.

In fact, the sole cover on Justin's exceptional current album, Midnight at the Movies, is "Can't Hardly Wait" by Westerberg's band, the Replacements — but with a mandolin handling the melody line and a fiddle giving it color. On "Halfway to Jackson," a chugging harmonica (provided by trusty sideman Cory Younts) keeps the blues boogie moving. Clearly, sounding like his dad is a non-issue.

And physically, there's even less resemblance. Skinny Justin looks more like Hank Williams than Dad.

Of course, Earle wasn't surprised by early comparisons to his father and the late Townes Van Zandt.

"I think people talked about it so much that I started to ignore it," says Earle. "I was never really affected by it. I never felt any need to live up to anything, first and foremost, and I think that helped."

If 2008's well-received debut album, The Good Life, was a fully realized work from a welcome new talent, Midnight at the Movies earns Earle the right to hang shoulder-to-shoulder with any of Nashville's top talents — related or not. It also earned him the Americana Music Association's 2009 New & Emerging Artist of the Year Award.

Earle doesn't shy away from talking about the expectations surrounding his family lineage, as well as the years his father spent fighting a serious drug addiction. Which makes sense for a writer who doesn't pull punches in his own songs. On "Mama's Eyes," for instance, Earle matter-of-factly sings, "I am my father's son / We don't see eye to eye / And I'll be the first to admit I've never tried."

Like his father, Earle was drawn early on to both songwriting and drugs.

"When I was about 15, I had officially quit school and was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life," he recalls. "I was trying to settle between whether I was gonna write songs or sell drugs. And I decided that I liked doing drugs too much; that it would probably be better if I didn't sell them."

The son, though, makes it clear he wasn't getting his drugs through his father. He had his own sources.

"I just always had access to it," he says. "So it was very easy to get. And that had nothing to do with my father."

And now like his father, Earle is focused on his music. He feels he's made considerable strides on Midnight at the Movies.

"On the last record, I stayed pretty true to traditional format and structure with the songs that I wrote," he says, "mainly because I was basing it off a lot of songs that I had written years ago. But this time, it's definitely a more grown-up record. I really don't think there's any angst — or not much angst."

scene@csindy.com

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