Justin Townes Earle — an Americana artist, former Rogers Park resident and son of Grammy-award-winning artist Steve Earle — died Aug. 23 at age 38. His death was announced in a post on his Facebook page. He is survived by his wife Jenn Marie Maynard-Earle and 3-year-old daughter Etta St. James.
While officials have not determined an exact cause of death, Nashville Police Department spokesperson Don Aaron said his death “is likely related to a drug overdose.”
In an email to The Phoenix, Aaron said Nashville police officers arrived at Earle’s apartment just after 5 p.m. Aug. 23 to perform a welfare check after a concerned friend had called and said they hadn’t heard from him since that Aug. 20.
While the artist, known for his hit song “Harlem River Blues,” resided in Nashville for most of his life, he had many connections to Chicago. One of which is a song named after the part of the city where Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus sits — Rogers Park.
“Rogers Park” is the penultimate track off his third album, “Harlem River Blues,” and one of the songs he wrote about specific geographic locations. Though he had toured the world, the neighborhood was enough to inspire him to write the somber tune.
Earle moved to Rogers Park in 2000 as an 18-year-old, though he left the area for Nashville just two years later. He wrote the song while living in the area, though it wouldn’t be released for another decade.
The song, in which he sings “I came here with hopes and / Guess I came here with dreams / Now I’m all alone / I can’t even get to sleep,” describes his loneliness in the neighborhood, though he uses more detail to tie it to Rogers Park in the chorus: “Snowing in off the lake / Punching holes in the dark / Through the lonely streets of / Rogers Park.”
He later sings “Send me back to the pines,” explaining his longing to return to his native state of Tennessee, where he would move back after living in Rogers Park for two years.
After hearing of his passing, Katie Brandt, a graduate teaching assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago living in Rogers Park, said she and her husband went on a “memorial stroll” to the intersection of North Greenview and West Touhy avenues where Earle had once had an apartment.
She said Earle had felt like he was claimed by the neighborhood because of his time living in the area as well as the song he wrote about it.
“He felt more like ‘our’s’ because he did have that connection to the neighborhood and wrote that song about it,” Brandt, 31, said. “That’s definitely something that makes his loss feel all the more upsetting.”
While the tune isn’t bright or cheery, it’s honesty and geographically inspired title became a staple of his music, with Earle putting out songs like “One More Night In Brooklyn,” “Mornings In Memphis” and “Flint City Shake It.”
Rob Miller, the co-owner and co-founder of Bloodshot Records — which put out Earle’s first four of his eight records — said he had a knack for writing songs about the places he had been.
“The guy could move to a city and somehow write a series of songs about that city that made it seem like he was a lifetime resident,” Miller said.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Miller spoke about the first time he met Earle in 2008. He was letting Earle, at the time a friend of a friend, stay at his house after the artist played a house show on the North Shore.
“He got up, well there was no stage, he just stood in front of the fireplace and started playing,” Miller said. “Halfway through the second song I knew I really wanted to work with this guy.”
After the show, Earle went back to Miller’s house where the two went through Miller’s vinyl collection, listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins records and spending the next few days together.
“He appreciated that I didn’t give a shit that he was Steve Earle’s son,” Miller said. “He didn’t have that pressure of being Steve Earle’s son, he could come to a Chicago label and be Justin.”
Justin Townes Earle’s father Steve Earle is an accomplished musician himself — winning three Grammys and having his song “The Devil’s Right Hand” covered by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson’s country supergroup The Highwaymen.
Steve Earle couldn’t be reached for comment.
Geography was not the only subject of Justin Townes Earle’s music, however — the artist also detailed his struggles with addiction in songs like “Slippin’ and Slidin.’” On multiple occasions, he opened up to publications such as NPR and Rolling Stone about it as well.
“I was never one of those people that was confused, ‘Oh, I can quit in a day’ — I knew I couldn’t quit any day,” he told The Scotsman in a 2015 interview. “I always knew there was something different about the way that I used drugs and drank to the way that my friends did, but it’s a wild thing to wake up when you’re 16 years old and realize you can’t stop shooting up.”
His struggles with multiple addictions — including alcohol, cocaine and painkillers — continued into his adult life, even interrupting his artistry at times.
According to Miller, Earle experienced a relapse in Indianapolis just a few days into a three-month tour supporting his album “Harlem River Blues” after nearly six years of sobriety. His label and management team sent him to rehab, forcing him to cancel the entire tour.
Immediately after coming out of the rehab facility, and before anyone at Bloodshot Records had the chance to see him, Earle was booked to the “Late Show with David Letterman” to perform.
“We hadn’t seen him,” Miller said. “We all convened at the bar where Bloodshot [Records] was formed and watched Letterman from the bar. We were crossing our fingers and hoping, and he just killed it that night. … It was such a tremendous relief.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid epidemic has worsened — the American Medical Association reported that more than 40 states have seen increases in opiate-related deaths and the Cook County Medical Examiner recently revealed the area was on track to double the number of opioid-related deaths seen in 2019.
Earle even cited his struggles with substances as part of the reason he left Rogers Park.
“All the things that were bad for me were way too accessible, cheap and strong in Chicago,” Earle told the AV Club in a 2010 interview.
Despite his struggles, Earle followed in his father’s footsteps of being an accomplished musician, earning several awards from the Americana Music Awards, including Emerging Act of the Year 2009 and Song of the Year 2011 for “Harlem River Blues.”
His eighth release, “The Saint of Lost Causes” — which was put out in May 2019 — was the last of his 13-year career. With his father still releasing music in 2020 at the age of 65, Miller said it was difficult to think about what could have been with the rest of Earle’s career.
“I’m pissed and I’m sad and just broken up that I’m not going to see what he was going to do for the next 20 years,” Miller said.
For help dealing with opioids addictions, contact the Illinois Hotline for Opioids and Other Substances for help.
Justin Townes Earle’s music is available for streaming on Spotify and other streaming services.