From the moment he started recording a decade ago, people were primed to hear folk and country affinities in the music of Justin Townes Earle. Here was a guy frequently taking the stage with just his acoustic guitar for accompaniment — a symbol that scans as “folk singer” — and toting around the names of a pair of troubadour heroes, his dad Steve Earle and his dad’s comrade Townes Van Zandt. What sometimes received less attention was the younger Earle’s fluency in bluesy swing and swagger and boastful signifying. “If you ain’t glad I’m leaving, girl, you know you oughta be,” he warned on his first full-length album, The Good Life, cavalierly reeling off rambling, gambling and cheating exploits over loping country-blues.
Nothing on his seventh album, Kids In The Street, his most pleasing and playful effort to date, feels that stylized. He’s cultivated an easeful way of balancing down-home and urban, modern and vintage, role-inhabiting and autobiographical sensibilities. His spry finger-style guitar figures, conversational and citified wit and jauntily slouching delivery are all central elements. In the past, he’s usually recorded in his native Nashville, but this time around he went to the Omaha studio of Mike Mogis, who’s accustomed to approaching roots music from an indie rock angle. On Kids In The Street, Mogis spikes the grooves with appealingly unexpected textures: a Vibraphone solo here, a hyperactive upright bass vamp there (see the rave-ups “15-25” and “Short Hair Woman”).
Earle does employ Nashville as a songwriting backdrop, though, by animating moments from a not-so-innocent-or-idyllic youth. In the folk-rock number “Maybe a Moment,” he tries to cajole a girl into a joyride to Memphis with him and his fellow teenaged delinquents, and in the spare, ruminative title track, he acknowledges conflicted emotions about gentrification erasing the working-class neighborhoods of his youth. “No, those weren’t better days,” he muses, “but they still meant something to me when we were kids out in the street.”
The title of Earle’s murder ballad “Same Old Stagolee” will be familiar to many, because it’s his Nashville-situated reimagining of a traditional number (“Stagger Lee”) that’s been taken up and adapted by Mississippi John Hurt and countless other folk and blues performer. Earle’s new narrator is a wry, cowardly observer of a murder meant to make an example of a man who crossed a social boundary — neighborhood, class or race, we’re not told which — to pursue a romantic interest.
He makes the cleverest use of class consciousness in the hopped-up album opener “Champagne Corolla,” in which his protagonist stands on a street corner, admiring a female passerby for her fuel-efficient choice of vehicle. “I don’t care what no man say,” he jives. “She can run all week on just one tank. Goes to show you, maybe baby got a head on her shoulders. And she sure look sweet driving that champagne Corolla.”
Never has Earle sounded more attuned to the spirit and potential of the roots idioms he works with, or freer to play around with them.