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Justin Townes Earle @ The Ardmore Music Hall.

September 15, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAText and images by Kyle Bagenstose.

Alt-country songwriter Justin Townes Earle seems a man that has done his share of wanton wandering, and is now interested in a more defined personal journey.

The 32-year-old from Nashville built a reputation early in his career as an outlaw artist of sorts, with admitted penchants for drugs and drink and wild performances that often showed signs of recent use of both. His work reflected the mindset, with many songs on albums like The Good Life telling tales of his traveling aimlessly by car, train, or foot– gambling and drinking until either his money or health ran low.

The lifestyle culminated in September 2010 fight with a club owner in Indianapolis and a night in jail, after which Earle checked into rehab and sobered up. Last Thursday night, about four years later, a much more subdued (and recently married) Justin Townes Earle took the stage at the Ardmore Music Hall.

Clean-cut and dressed in a suit coat, Earle took the audience through a 21-song set that opened with the unreleased “Call Yo Mamma,” followed by “Ain’t Waitin‘.”

It was the stage banter after that second song that showed the first glimpses Earle had plenty of entertainment to offer without being under the influence. Drowned out by the bass and drums of the backing band, Earle seemed to be ignoring the calls of the audience to adjust the levels.

But just before launching into “When the One You Love,” Earle, with a sly smile, told the engineer, “I think they want to hear more vocals.”

The adjustment paid immediate dividends, as the audience of about 200 fell hush hanging on the words of the song, listening as Earle slowly painted the emotions of a relationship’s last moments while strumming on his Recording King guitar.

Indeed, much of Earle’s set consisted of slower, heartfelt songs bordering on the blues, with plenty of weepy pedal steel and guitar from backing instrumentalist Paul Niehaus. Earle worked through most of the material from Single Mothers, his latest album and the one that shows perhaps the greatest evolution of his career.

Son of alt-country legend Steve Earle, who left Justin’s mother at an early age, much of JTE’s early work suggested he was a man fighting a losing battle against his inherited appetite for vice. While prior songs like “Mama’s Eyes” paid tribute to Earle’s mother, Single Mothers seems to be a true artistic dedication to the ladies Earle sees as deserving of his admiration.

That even extended to Billie Holiday, a woman with whom Earle told the audience he could empathize for being unable to escape an asterisk as a heroin addict.

“It’s always, ‘She was a heroin addict but wow could she sing,’” Earle said. “So I wrote a song for Billie because I think she deserves it.”

The ensuing “White Gardenias,” named for Holiday’s signature flower, once again captivated the crowd as Townes delivered lyrics that sounded like a longing love letter sent through time.

But Earle’s performance wasn’t all melancholy. Mixed in up-tempo numbers like “Memphis in the Rain” and “Time Shows Fools” had much of the standing audience in an enthusiastic sway, and Earle’s stage banter grew more entertaining as the show progressed.

Prefacing “Burning Pictures,” Earle explained the song was about destroying the proverbial shoebox of pictures of old sweethearts.

“This is about hopeless romanticism and burning people’s shit up. Mighty is the power of the box,” Earle said, to laughs.

But yet, echos of Earle’s old reputation persisted. As the set began to wind to a c lose, a drunken call of “Come on Justin, Halfway to Jackson!” came down from the balcony, as a fan asked for one of the ramblin’ anthems of Earle’s early material.

But Earle either didn’t hear the heckle or let it pass without comment, and instead closed with a brilliant encore cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

It was a telling moment: Earle seems to be a man focused on the music and people he think deserves his attention.

“It’s only right that you should play the way you feel,” Earle sang, giving new meaning to the lyrics of Stevie Nicks and drawing a healthy applause from the appreciative crowd as he left the stage.

Amen, Justin.

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