We saw him live once, almost exactly two years ago. Just one guitar, one man, and his heart, laid bare for all to see through his songs. Justin Townes Earle’s singular, percussive playing style was both rhythm and harmony to the melody of his voice at that small venue in the middle of a cold Canadian winter. When a string broke on his guitar on the first song, there was no tech to do the fix, no second guitar to reach for. Earle rummaged through a case, grabbed a spare string and made the change, chatting amiably with the audience the whole time. It felt like you could get to know him. We knew he’d struggled hard. You could hear it in his entire song catalogue. But of course, there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t know, don’t deserve to know.
In this tribute for Rolling Stone, Jonathan Bernstein interviewed 30 people, including friends, former bandmates, and Justin Townes Earle’s widow, Jenn Marie Earle, who share what Justin meant to them, six months after his death. They paint a portrait of a generous and loving man, who was not able to offer that same generosity and love to himself.
Onstage, Earle was an electrifying presence: six-foot-four, dressed in vintage suits, playing in a fiery style of finger-picking he’d picked up listening to the bluesman Mance Lipscomb. He assumed the public persona of a world-weary troubadour, one worthy of his cursed namesake, the self-destructive country-folk genius Townes Van Zandt, a friend of his father.
Justin was locking himself inside a dark room off the basement for hours to write, communicating with Jenn Marie through a grate connected to the kitchen upstairs. “If you need me,” Justin would shout, “just stomp your hoof, my little dear.”
“I’d seen him starting to become more distant, in many ways,” Jenn Marie says. “That song, to me, was an admittance, of choosing the fate of being locked away from what means the most to you.” The album Justin was writing in that unlit basement study, the last album released while he was alive, would be called The Saint of Lost Causes. “I think he was admitting that he was defeated, in a lot of ways,” Jenn Marie says.
As the years passed, Earle’s insecurities grew. “There was a huge part of Justin that didn’t believe in himself,” says Jenn Marie. “He saw the music business changing. . . . When his [2014 and 2015 albums, Single Mothers and Absent Fathers] came out, he was disappointed they didn’t do so well. I think that’s where a lot of his darkness, his struggles with substance abuse and addiction, started to come to the surface in the last few years: him feeling like he wasn’t good enough.”
“We have for so long looked at people who had addiction problems … we ask them the wrong questions,” he said in 2018. “We say, ‘What is wrong with you?’ The problem is, they hurt. So you don’t ask them, ‘What’s wrong with you.’ You ask them, ‘Why do you hurt?’”