Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
If southern music originally served as a preservation of the soul, what does it preserve now? Perhaps that’s actually the wrong question. For sure, it can still preserve something, but there seems to be a more urgent matter, namely, can country music itself be preserved?
One needs only to spend an afternoon with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe or soul’s father Ray Charles to see a running theme of music serving to entertain, to distract and to soothe. The songs were not just meant to be a diversion from reality, but a reminder that there was something good amid the struggle and something peaceful beyond it. Looking back all the way to the days of the minstrel shows in the 19th century, one finds black performers singing of a heaven free from white oppression. Or think of the field holler, widely considered the precursor to the blues, and the solace it gave during a tough day in the sun.
In the 20th century, numerous musical genres formed in the South as a response to and an antidote for affliction. Ragtime and early jazz players saw music as entertainment and a relief from segregation and racism, while Woody Guthrie earned the title “Dust Bowl Troubadour” for his somber ballads depicting the Great Depression and the southern migration to California.
Meanwhile, the early hillbilly music of the Carter Family transformed into country music as Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers became gods of the genre. Country music went deeper south and became more grounded in sad songs and loneliness while expressing a strange beauty and truth amidst the desolation. This reached its pinnacle in Texas, not with the outlaw scene of Nelson and Jennings, but with Townes Van Zandt, a lowly hero who abandoned a life of wealth to play songs in old music halls and dive bars. Haunting, melancholic and darkly romantic, Van Zandt’s music is brutal and beautiful and has every right to be, because Van Zandt lived the life worthy of such songs. It is in this sense that southern music originally preserved souls.
Where did all this go? Why is it no longer a question of what the music preserves but rather whether it can be preserved? Essentially, it comes down to the fact that hardships gave way to money, and the kitchen table to the recording studio. With the heart of southern music centered on the alleviation of troubles, it makes sense that country music would fade as life improved. And while originally, southern music meant folks gathering at a house and playing songs together, the advent of radio and record labels gave these musicians a chance to go beyond the home and play for a nation (and of course make a few bucks doing it).
The original ethos of southern music is surely gone, but rest assured, the sound is being preserved. I do not simply mean by fans plugging in Lefty Frizzell or Lee Dorsey on the Internet and listening to their songs, but by musicians today who are carrying on the southern tradition, gaining followers and reminding listeners what the South meant to American music.
One in particular, who may very well be the most significant of all, is Justin Townes Earle, the son of underground country star Steve Earle and named after the aforementioned legend Townes Van Zandt. As a musician, Earle, only 30, has pretty big shoes to fill in the country genre, yet rather than even trying, he has instead chosen to champion as many southern music genres as possible. A child of Nashville, Earle realized that the roots of most southern music surrounded his home. Just east he could find Old Time, to the north, bluegrass, and then right out west, the blues, R&B and rock n’ roll.
And so Earle has taken the geographic landscape of southern music and applied it to his four major albums. From his debut record The Good Life to his most recent Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (one of the better long-title albums in recent memory), the ambitious Earle has traversed all the way from Old Time string music and country to Memphis soul. In his own words, he really does feel like he’s preserving southern music.
And yet simply mimicking old styles is not enough. The songs themselves must stand on their own terms, and Earle makes sure that they do. A brilliant wordsmith who has had enough intense experiences to last a lifetime, Earle writes meaningful songs with beautiful melodies that bring cadence to the chaos of his early life. Although he says he does not remember much of it, we get glimpses, feelings, thoughts and stories that suggest otherwise. A running theme in his songs is his desire to be a better man, but he also often reminds us that one thing that will not change is his hatred for his negligent father. In “Mama’s Eyes,” he regretfully writes that he picked up a handful of his dad’s traits, but he finds comfort that at least half of his genetics come from his mother.
It is this combination of exceptional songwriting and storytelling with a variety of southern musical styles that makes Justin Townes Earle a man on his way to creating his own legend. I do not suggest that because of people like him, southern music is as alive and well as it once was. Rather, his songs give us a glimpse of what southern music was and still can be. The kitchen tables and many of the hardships have disappeared, but the spirit of southern music lingers, and that is something well worth embracing.