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Justin Townes Earle Dies at Age 38

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Earle family...

Written by Vernell Hackett
Justin Townes Earle Dies at Age 38
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 07: Singer Justin Townes Earle performs onstage during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival at Golden Gate Park on October 7, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

The death of Justin Townes Earle, the son of country and Americana singer/songwriter Steve Earle and Carole Ann Hunter, was confirmed Sunday by New West Records, for whom he recorded. It was posted on Earle’s Facebook page.

“It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin. 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.”

On Tuesday (August 25) Metro Police reported that Earle died of a probable drug overdose. The singer had issues with drug addiction throughout his life.

Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Metro Police Department, said officers responded to a call by a friend of Earle’s, who asked them to do a welfare check on him. The friend told police he had not seen or heard from Earle since Thursday (August 20). Officers and the fire department went to Earle’s apartment on Sunday (August 23) where they found him dead.

Aaron said there was no sign of a struggle or foul play. He said the preliminary investigation indicated death was caused by a probable overdose. An autopsy is pending.

Earle, who was 38, followed in his father’s footsteps as a singer/songwriter, creating his own niche in the Americana and alt-country genres while including overtones of blues, one of his early favorite musical genres.

The Nashville native was named after one of his father’s favorite singer/songwriters, Townes Van Zandt. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Earle revealed that his mother did not like Van Zandt because of all the trouble he and his father got into and did not want him to be named after him. His father prevailed, however, and Earle was bestowed with Townes as his middle name.

As a beginning entertainer, Earle performed at the Springwater Supper Club in Nashville, where he followed his goal to play the blues, including the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt and other blues favorites in his set list.  His music turned to an Americana sound as he began releasing albums, the first of which being an EP in 2007 on Bloodshot Records, Yuma. It was followed by 2008’s The Good Life, filled with the many influences of country, blues, soul and folk. In 2009 Earle was named Emerging Act of the Year by the Americana Music Association.

In 2010 he released his most celebrated album, Harlem River Blues, which landed him the Americana Music award for Song of the Year for the title cut. It also earned him a guest spot on The David Letterman Show in 2011. His last album, The Saint of Lost Causes, was released on New West Records in 2019.

Earle worked hard to not claim his father’s celebrity and did indeed create his own style of music as he recorded eight albums throughout his career. His performances took him everywhere from clubs and theatres to the Ryman Auditorium, Bonnaroo and the Grand Ole Opry. His music was often about the darker side of life and he often wrote his songs from the side of those who fit into the population that led a more disadvantaged lifestyle. For instance, his first hit, “Harlem River Blues,” was about a man who is proclaiming that he “is going uptown to the Harlem River to drown, dirty waters going to cover me over and I’m not going to make a sound.”

Earle unfortunately had problems with addiction for many years, beginning when he was 14. His father had also fought that demon early in his career. In an interview with Depression Magazine, Earle said by the time he was 16 he was completely off the rails in his use of drugs. He did get clean for some years but drifted in and out of addiction a couple times. He never hid those problems and was open about them in many interviews that he did over the years. He played in his father’s band, The Dukes, for a period of time but was fired because of his addiction.

Earle was born and raised in Nashville, and later in life spent time in New York City and Portland, Oregon. Earle is survived by his wife, Jenn Marie, and their three-year-old daughter Etta St. James, as well as his father Steve Earle and his mother Carole Ann Hunter. 

A cause of death was not listed in the announcement by his record label. A memorial service is being planned for Earle in 2021.

Many of Earle’s fans and his peers have posted their sadness of his death on social media. Jason Isbell, who played with him on the Letterman show in 2011, said, “Had a lot of good times and made a lot of good music with JTE. So sad for his family tonight.” Stephen King noted, “It appears that Justin Townes Earle has died. I hope it’s a hoax but fear it is not. What a loss.” He later posted a link to Harlem River Blues, commenting “This is what we lost. Give it a listen.”

Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys said “Whoa … I am sorry to hear this … big fan … wonder what happened.  RIP Justin Townes Earle.” Margo Price wrote, “Sending love and condolences to Steve Earle and the entire family of Justin Townes Earle…he was always kind to me and he’s gone too soon.”

His father’s message was a simple “Justin Townes Earle 1982-2020,” and includes a picture of him and his son together.