In early December 2011, a couple of my friends and I who ride the train, play guitar, and generally hang out together went to see Justin Townes Earle’s debut performance at Carnegie Hall. Justin is the son of Steve Earle, who is quite a songwriter/guitar player/performer. Steve and his wife split when Justin was two, but the boy inherited the old man’s musical gifts and, unfortunately, his tendency toward addiction.
Justin grew up in Nashville. According to an interview in the September 2012 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, it was the opportunity to house-sit his dad’s Greenwich Village apartment that inspired Justin’s 2010 album, Harlem River Blues. Its title track was the Americana Music Association’s song of the year. But that song, while great, suffers from two flaws that are keeping me from posting it here:
- It’s not about trains or work; and
- It’s not my favorite song on the album.
Two other songs do not suffer these flaws. Let’s talk about the train-related song first. It’s called Working’ for the MTA, and it’s in an old-time blues format, with repetitive lyrics and a catchy tune. On the album version, the song starts with the percussionist simulating train sounds. The track has been produced so that it sounds like it’s being played in a subway tunnel. For all I know, maybe it was.
Anyway, just about two weeks before we saw Justin play in midtown Manhattan, he gave this performance in Malmö, Sweden. When we saw him, he was playing with a small band. It looks like he flew solo in Scandinavia, though. I saw one video of a performance in Boston that was closer in sound to what we had seen, but the video was dark and I didn’t like the camera angle—you can’t see his hands as he plays. I like this one. Justin’s voice is clear, you get a nice view of his beautiful Martin guitar, and you can figure out how to play the song from watching him.
The other song I want to show you is my favorite on the album, One More Night in Brooklyn. This video is from a performance at Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV. The pendulum style of fingerpicking is called Travis picking, something I absolutely suck at. I’ve convinced myself that this is because I’m a lefty who learned to play guitar righty. With this justification firmly implanted in my mind, I can comfortably excuse myself from even trying. My brother-in-law is really good at this picking style, though, so I’ll just rely on him to learn it. I’ll satisfy myself with learning the infectious bass line you won’t hear in this video, but that is on the album (Spotify playlist is below) and was played at Carnegie Hall by a woman playing stand-up bass. I hadn’t heard the tune before that show, but it was a highlight for me. Oh, and it does include a train reference. After a short guitar solo, Justin sings, “I’m tired of waiting on you, waiting on a train.” So this song ostensibly has both elements that the album’s title track lacked.
After that Carnegie Hall show, we rode the train home. I think one of us fell asleep (it wasn’t me), but we made it home just fine.