If one wasn’t aware of the tradition of the Grand Ole Opry, of Hank Williams or Gene Autry or Buck Owens, of Showmanship, then one could write off what Justin Townes Earle does as shtick. In an era where the fourth wall, the divider between performer and audience, has been all but dissolved, Earle takes the stage with his band (fiddle and stand-up bass), addresses the audience (often) as “ladies and gentlemen,” and performs 90 minutes of blues, honky tonk, western swing and folk music with a Cheshire grin tattooed across his face. To those unversed in the history and tradition of country music, it must seem very, very strange and, perhaps, insincere. For those people, I feel very sorry, for they are missing out on an immense talent.
Earle’s birthright as a performer notwithstanding, he has carved himself a niche as a torchbearer for American Roots music, and if Monday’s show at the Tractor is any indication, Roots music is in capable hands. Earle gabbed and grinned and jittered his way through 90 minutes of high-octane history, mixing originals with samples from a century’s worth of tradition (Woody Guthrie, Lightning Hopkins) for a show that can be described without hyperbole as “timeless.”
Earle has his father’s knack for honest, self-effacing wit, both in banter and lyricism, and his father’s dexterous fingerpicking technique, but he is his own man, both as a writer and performer. The elder Earle, with 30 years as one of America’s Greatest Living Songwriters behind him, casts a long and distinguished shadow, but Justin’s voice – both as a writer and a singer – is unique and versatile, allowing for a range and depth of emotion that is positively stunning, enough so that any comparison to his father is simply lazy and unimaginative.
The two men share a lineage and an immense understanding of those that came before them – along with a deep and hypnotizing drawl – but the comparisons end there. Justin Townes Earle deserves to be measured by his own accomplishments, and that list will soon be as long and distinguished as his father’s aforementioned shadow.
Speaking of immense talents, Joe Pug – who opened the show with a set of razor-sharp songs of love, loss and redemption – brings with him his own considerable gift. At only 25, Pug has already distinguished himself as a songwriter who warrants comparisons to Prine, Dylan and Josh Ritter. With the release of his first full-length LP, The Messenger, February 16, Pug unleashed a barrage of imagery and metaphor which may well be without peer among the songwriters of his generation. Simply put, he will charm audiences with his talent and demeanor and infuriate other songwriters who will slave for decades and never come up with a line like, “I undressed somebody’s daughter, then complained about her looks” (from the coming-of-age anthem “Not So Sure”).
The shame about Pug is that, with only an EP and one full-length under his belt, he has little over an hour’s worth of material to draw from. For a support slot, that’s more than enough, but my hunch is Pug will be headlining his own tour very soon and the audience will want much, much more. Something tells me he’ll find a way to deliver.
If you missed this show, find a way to be in Pullman for the Birds on a Wire festival on March 27. Both Pug and Earle will be there. Until then, you’ll just have to take solace in the fact that finally, after a decade of Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams wannabe’s, American music is in very good hands again.
Kasey Anderson, a regular contributor to NadaMucho.com, is no stranger to great American songwriting.