At 13 years old, Justin Townes Earle was destined for greatness, but it wasn't because of anything he does on stage today. No, Earle was preparing for a career in premiere league soccer.
“I had a very smart coach who told me, even though I was good — colleges were looking at me even in middle school — I didn’t have the build to be a pro player,” Earle said. “I was too slender. I was already having trouble with my knees. I was going to need surgery by the time I was 18. My life changed completely.”
But Earle used the setback as an opportunity to open up to his interest in music.
“I was definitely interested; I joked around the house with the tennis racket when I was a little kid, mimicking AC/DC records,” Earle said. “By the time I hit high school, I was 100 percent sure of what I was going to do, and school didn’t have a whole lot to offer me. I only attended two weeks before I left.”
After quitting school, Earle took gigs on Sunday afternoons at the Spring Water Supper Club & Lounge in Nashville, Tenn. When he was not spending hours performing for bar patrons, he was writing new material.
“I wrote a new song every two or three days then,” Earle said.
“Halfway to Jackson,” a song he wrote at 16, appears on Earle’s 2009 album, “Midnight at the Movies.”
In 2011, Earle took the next big step in his career. He played a concert at Carnegie Hall and on the Late Show with David Letterman. The size and the prestige of those venues did not affect his perspective.
“I keep everything very simple no matter what stage I’m on,” Earle said. “It’s not the size of the venue or how nice the venue is, it’s the fans that are there. That’s all I need to do my job, that’s what I’m here for: to help fans forget about the daily grind. I’m not going to talk about politics on stage.”
Earle said people seek a connection, whether they are on stage or not. He carries that perspective to every venue he visits.
“I’ve found that people like to draw lines to other people, no matter where you go or what language they speak or how much money they have,” Earle said. “It doesn’t matter. Human beings all have the same needs and experiences as far as emotions are concerned. It’s about approaching each crowd and treating them like I’m one of them.”
At 8 p.m. tonight, fans will get a chance to hear Earle in Blacksburg at the Lyric Theatre. Grammy-nominee Tift Merritt will set the stage for Earle’s debut.
“Tift came as a package with Justin and I was happy to accept,” said Mark Arciaga, production manager of the Lyric Theatre. “She’s a two-time Grammy nominee; I think people would not expect someone of her caliber to be opening.”
Those at the show will not be hearing the music Earle played fifteen years ago. He said his current blend of rock 'n' roll has roots in Memphis, Tenn.
“The stuff I learned first, I messed with right there in Memphis — all kinds of blues and R&B worked its way into rock 'n' roll there,” Earle said. “I’m looking at trying to be singer-songwriter but also be a band. There’s a lot of space to do that.”
Living in New York City also influenced his music.