Justin Townes Earle has stepped into his destiny with shambling wit and laconic grace after messy, harrowing stumbles that seemed equally preordained. You see, Justin shares a last name with his father, Steve Earle, and owns a middle name in tribute to one of his father’s heroes, the late Townes Van Zandt. Both Townes and Steve had hellhounds on their psyche that variously sideswiped and catalyzed their gift for making poetically plainspoken songs. For Justin, then, the family business was fraught with emotional peril and a distinctly profound shot at self-discovery.
For many burgeoning artists, regardless of pedigree, drug addiction seems so romantic before you’re hooked. Justin had five major drug overdoses before he could legally drink, his life veering toward the sort of sordid cliché that is the currency of too many songs in his hometown of Nashville. But then, like his father (only much sooner), and unlike Townes, he pulled himself into sobriety, cleared his head, steadied his hand, and began to make compelling music that he’ll probably still be around to play for another few decades or more.
This is where the 27-year-old man gets to be judged on his own terms. He acknowledges his history: The song “Mama’s Eyes” on his latest album, last year’s, “Midnight at the Movies,” leads with the lines, “I am my father’s son/I’ve never known when to shut up/I ain’t foolin’ no one/I am my father’s son.” The disc also includes a song entitled “They Killed John Henry,” which expertly incorporates the folk song that made the “steel-driving man” an enduring hero, while infusing the tale with his own musical and lyrical insights. And he’s covered Woody Guthrie’s “I Don’t Care,” among other songs.
But a ballad like “Far Away in Another Town” extends as well as embraces the plainspoken poetry that is both the pervasive tradition in which he is enveloped and the means for him to forge his own path. The lyrics have midnight trains and pouring rain and a half-dozen other iconic images that can only be sold with vocal sincerity — and even then only with a twist. Townes delivers it with the phrase, “I think I can be lonesome/On my own,” just before the poignant, slightly twangy guitar kicks in.
Here he is doing a talk-sung rap-blues just a couple weeks ago, entitled “South Georgia Sugar Babe,” that evolves into a honky-tonkin’ groove. And here is “Far Away In Another Town,” complete with irreverent intro.
Justin Townes Earle at the Turf Club, tonight at 8 p.m., tickets $14.