A 6’5" string bean partial to bowties and Marc Jacobs suspenders, Justin Townes Earle is prettier than his daddy, Steve Earle, but that don’t mean he’s soft. On stage, he rolls up his sleeves to reveal the full-frontal nudity of a pin-up girl inked on his forearm. Before he moved to New York, he sold crack on the streets of Nashville and survived three overdoses between the ages of 12 and 21. At 28, he’s cleaned up his act, but his Twitter updates are appropriately foul-mouthed: "Secret is out! Playing tonight at the tractor tavern in Seattle. It’s listed under Alabama finger bang. Let’s fucking rock!!!!!" Another recent tweet featured a photo of some rusty wire trimmers with the caption, "Just trimmed my mustache with these… shit bitch!"
That said, there’s nothing filthy about his new record, Harlem River Blues, a Southerner’s ode to his new Northern home. Although he’s singing about drowning in murky waters on the title track, the production is squeaky clean and the vocals are crystal clear. He channels Elvis for "Move Over Mama," in which he finds his lady "flat on [her] back with legs open wide." It’s not that there’s another man in his place—it’s just that she’s gotten accustomed to spreading out in bed while he’s been on the road. Cute, right?
The underlying darkness and demons of JTE’s previous records are pretty much swept away, but there’s some sadness in "Workin’ for the MTA," the story of a Louisiana-born 6-train engineer, sung over the whir of a pedal steel. It’s a working man’s anthem that’d make Woody Guthrie proud. The weary "Rogers Park," a departure from NYC to Chicago, sounds as though it was written after a long listen of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. And on the countrified "One More Night in Brooklyn," he’s looking west, but only as far as Manhattan—Earle and his girl moved to the East Village after an unhappy stint in Crown Heights.
Some of these tunes might have benefited from a little more grime and grit, but the record closes with a stirring blue-eyed gospel take on the title track’s refrain: "Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound." Listening to the rousing chorus, we can only wonder where JTE will be headed next.