Justin Townes Earle, an acclaimed singer-songwriter in the Americana/alt-country field and the son of Steve Earle, has died at age 38, according to an announcement on his social media accounts.
"It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin," read the statement on Facebook and Instagram. "So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin."
No cause of death was immediately offered.
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Fans and friends reacted to the news with shock and sadness as word began to spread Sunday night, from the Head & the Heart and Margo Price to author Stephen King.
"RIP Justin Townes Earle," tweeted the band the Head & the Heart. "We had the pleasure of playing a few shows together. He was such an immense songwriter and authentic soul. This year is a thief."
The announcement of his death ended with a lyrical quote:
I've crossed oceans/ Fought freezing rain and blowing sand I've crossed lines and roads and wondering rivers/ Just looking for a place to land
Earle was named in part after the legendary singer Townes Van Zandt, who was a friend and mentor of his famous father, Steve. The singer grew up in a less affluent part of Nashville, raised by his mother, Carol Ann Hunter Earle, before forming a closer bond with his father as an adult.
He released his first EP, "Yuma," in 2007, and was signed by Bloodshot and released his full-length debut, "The Good Life," the following year..
In 2009, he won an award from the Americana Music Association for new and emerging artist of the year. He was again the recipient of a top honor when his song "Harlem River Blues" won song of the year in 2011.
Earle was open about having struggled with addiction issues from the time he was 14, and had multiple experiences with relapsing and rehab. His website had referred to "a newfound sobriety. "One day I just realized it's not cool to die young, and it's even less cool to die after 30," he said in a bio on his site, written when he was 32.
His most recent album, and second for the New West label, "The Saint of Lost Causes," came out in 2019. He had continued to tour behind it up through March, when the pandemic brought a halt to live shows.
In an interview last year with The Boot, Earle talked about his soon-to-be 2-year-old daughter, Etta St. James, and how she inspired him to write a less inward, more socially conscious set of material for what turned out to be his swan song.
"My daughter is probably the reason I stopped writing songs that were so inward and started looking out into the world," he admits. "I had to start worrying about the world because of her. I bought her a 9MM [handgun] the day she was born because I'm frightened like hell for her. ... "I have a daughter; I can't stop caring," Earle says, with an obvious hint of pragmatic pride. "I have a mother that I take care of. I can't ever stop caring. What I will stop doing, eventually ... it's what the record says. You push down white trash or poor black people or whoever long enough, we're going to react. We will react. And you won't like it. Baby Boomers love to say they stopped the Vietnam War, but they also ruined the stock market. Congrats, guys. Meanwhile, I can't get a job at McDonald's because of my criminal record. So if I don't play music, I sell dope. I'm a criminal, and if I don't play music, I'd probably be in prison or dead."
He continued, "It's hard, man. I've been committed to music since I was 15 years old," he says. "I'm a good father. I taught my daughter to cuss when the Cubs lose -- she's an Earle, so she'll be fine. I'm a good father, but I'm a s--ty husband. I'm built for the road; I don't know what the hell to do at home. But you know what? I never said I'd be good at any of that. Nobody can ever ask me to stop doing what I do. If you want to do what I do -- like Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark -- you're committed to it. Everybody else around you has to understand that."
Reviewing his latest album for Rolling Stone last year, critic Jonathan Bernstein wrote, "From the beginning, Earle has been a relentlessly principled artist, fixed in his old-fashioned ways of what it means to be a 21st century singer-songwriter. The roots revival Earle helped usher in earlier this decade with albums like 2010's Harlem River Blues has since largely passed him in favor of smoother-voiced traditionalists like Jason Isbell, and yet, on his latest, Earle remains more attached than ever to his own treasured lost causes: old-school folk storytelling, out-of-date pre-rock stylings, and the utter centrality of album making in the era of streaming. ... The Saint of Lost Causes lives up to its title, serving as a refreshing reminder of what the songwriter has always done best."
In recent years, Earle had lived in Portland, after becoming uphappy with the growth and gentrification of Nashville. Telling The Current in 2017 about growing up in the city, he said, "They like to call it Twelve South now, but it was called Sevier Park-Sunnyside Neighborhood when I was a kid. It was a very racially mixed neighborhood, it was a very poor neighborhood, and now it's million-dollar homes and nothing but lily-white children running around on those damn streets and it don't look right. It ain't the neighborhood I grew up in. ... Nashville did away with my home. Nashville definitely took a turn where it hasn't anywhere else, where they don't want to just get the people out of the building and gut the building, they wanna rip that building completely down no matter how old, how historic it is, who lived in it, whatever... It's definitely not my home anymore, other than the fact that my mom's there."
Speaking about the fame that he shared with his father, Earle talked about arriving at a balance in his attitude. ""I really do appreciate (the connection)," he told The Boot. "There are a lot of sons and daughters out there who want nothing to do with their parents. Get over that s--. You think you'd be doing what you're doing with no influence from your mother or father? But even though it was tough, nobody will ever say that I rode my daddy's coattails. My daddy can't write like me, he can't play guitar like me. I can't write like him, and I don't want to play guitar like him. I think we've done five shows together in 13 years since I started making records. We separated it hard from the beginning, because he wanted me to stand on my own."