"The neighborhood that I grew up in," recalls Justin Townes Earle, "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. All that Memphis stuff that came out of Stax and Royal studios and places like that, it was the first stuff where I ever went, 'What the fuck is that?'"
Earle has obviously absorbed a lot of other musical influences since then—Woody Guthrie chief among his musical heroes—but his latest album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, is the one that reflects that first excitement, strongly tipping its hat to the vibrant Memphis soul of the 1960s and early '70s. He opens for John Prine Dec. 5 at the Wells Fargo Center.
"I kind of had been thinking about it for years," says Earle, the son of acclaimed performer Steve Earle. "People had made all these alt-country records, all these records with the roots of country infused in them, so why not the roots of soul being infused in them?"
Nothing's Gonna Change has a dustier, slightly more muted feel than the often bright and buoyant edge typifying much of vintage Memphis soul. It also arrived after a setback for Earle, when a substance abuse problem that began in his teens reemerged. "When I made Harlem River Blues," he explains, "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," says Earle, who was booked by police in September 2010 after allegedly trashing a dressing room and striking the daughter of a club owner. He canceled the tour and again checked into rehab.
Earle went into the latest CD clean again and with a new perspective. "When I started writing these songs for Nothing's Gonna Change, was after I had cleaned up again," he says. "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. 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."