As much as Justin Townes Earle has been known as an Americana-alternative country artist, he says his latest CD, “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” is the album that reflects the first music that excited him, the early soul sounds that emanated from Memphis.
The CD strongly tips its hat to the music of the 1960s and early ’70s, complete with horns on many of the songs.
“The neighborhood that I grew up in, you’d be standing on the corner, and that Cutlass would come by with shiny wheels on it and there would be an older gentleman behind the wheel wearing a Kangol hat listening to Al Green, just banging it out of the speakers in his car,” said Earle, a native of South Nashville.
“I just remember, it was like all that Memphis stuff that came out of Stax and came out of Royal studios and places like that,” Earle said. “I think it was the first stuff where I ever went ‘What the (expletive) is that’ when I heard it.”
Earle has absorbed a lot of other musical influences since then — Woody Guthrie being chief among his musical heroes — but he’s been kicking around the idea of making an album rooted in Memphis soul for quite some time.
“People had made all these alt-country records, all these records with the roots of country infused in them,” said Earle, the son of acclaimed singer-songwriter Steve Earle, “so why not the roots of soul being infused in them?”
On “Nothing’s Gonna Change,” soul is neatly integrated into the country/folk/rock sound that was already familiar from Earle’s four earlier albums — “Yuma” (2007), “The Good Life” (2008), “Midnight at the Movies” (2009) and “Harlem River Blues” (2010).
New songs such as “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” and the title track start out sounding like sad country ballads until organ and horns filter in to give them a major Memphis twist. Other tunes, such as “Maria” and “Look the Other Way,” are more uptempo but don’t go full throttle. Overall, the sound on “Nothing’s Gonna Change” has a dustier, slightly more muted feel than the often bright and buoyant edge that typified much of the vintage Memphis soul. But the combination of horns and organ mixing with fiddle and slightly twangy electric guitar works very well, and Earle has crafted some of his strongest songs yet on this latest album.
“Charlie Rich has always been a very big influence to me, and this record in a lot of ways I was thinking about ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (Rich’s signature hit) when I was making this record,” Earle said. “At the same time, too, I was also kind of getting into that kind of Ike Turner kind of rears his head up. (And) Woody Guthrie is always going to rear his head up in my music. That’s the base.”
“Nothing’s Gonna Change” arrived after a setback for Earle, when a substance abuse problem that began in his teens re-emerged.
“When I made ‘Harlem River Blues,’ I had started drinking again, and I was doing a bunch of coke and was going crazy and ended up getting arrested right after the release of it,” said Earle, who was arrested in September 2010 after allegedly trashing a dressing room at the Indianapolis club Radio Radio and striking the daughter of the club owner. He then canceled that tour and again checked into rehab.
Earle went into the latest CD clean again and with a new perspective.
“I think I realized after making ‘Harlem’ and after the trials and tribulations that came in after that, when I look in the mirror, I see a different person now,” Earle said. “I see an older person than I used to see. I think that, not that all of the angst has gone out of me, but a good chunk of youthful angst was taken out of me. And I find that I’m a lot more patient of a man these days. I think once again it’s offered me a new kind of outlook and view on life. I think it’s offered me another step in my process.”
Earle seems to be back on track. “Nothing’s Gonna Change” has deservedly received strong reviews, and Earle’s touring has been without incident thus far.
Having done shows in solo, duo and trio formats in the past, Earle has expanded his backing band and feels he has raised his game as a live performer.
“It’s the first time I’ve had an actual what most people consider a band, with like drums, bass and guitar,” he said. “It’s been a very life-changing thing, and it’s also been a thing where I also feel like we’re doing the best show.”
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