Justin Townes Earle got out of Nashville to better sing about Nashville on his latest album, Kids in the Street. It’s a wistful backwards glance at a not-so-idyllic childhood and raucous adolescence, brimming with hard-earned hindsight. Years prior, Earle may not have imagined that he’d be waxing nostalgic over a vibraphone, but, then again, he may not have imagined he’d be recording an album out in Omaha, Nebraska under the direction of Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis). After a little convincing from his record label, Earle agreed to work with a producer for the first time, resulting in a more full-bodied instrumental backdrop than that of previous releases.
Earle’s unaffected swagger has always suited him and even the most stylized blues of albums past have felt completely authentic in tandem with his languid drawl. A follow up to 2015’s Absent Fathers, Kids in the Street sheds the invincibility complex for something just as confident and a country mile more mature. In “15-25,” an infectious, N’awlins-inspired jazz number, complete with slicing organ riffs, Earle croons about his dangerous past from a safe distance.
If comedy is tragedy plus time, that would account for the album’s undercurrent of humor. Sharp-witted opener “Champagne Corolla” pokes fun at Americana archetypes while extolling working class virtues. “She can run all week on just one tank / goes to show you, maybe baby’s got a head on her shoulders,” he sings, showing practicality and smarts may be more attractive than a ’57 Chevy. In the same vein, “Short Hair Woman” favors low-maintenance over extravagance; it’s no surprise that the former freewheeling troubadour recently settled down.
On the title track, Earle reminisces honestly about an imperfect, yet simple, youth playing in the streets of Nashville before rampant gentrification altered the landscape. The pedal steel casts its usual bittersweet spell. “Those weren’t better days, but they still meant something to me,” Earle sings, a powerful observation that allows him to honor the past without romanticizing it — something Americana sometimes has difficulty achieving. Another nod to the past, “Same Old Stagolee” is a modern-day hat tip to an old Nashville lament about class violence.
The collaboration of Justin Townes Earle and Mike Mogis is an undeniably satisfying one. The result is an album with all Earle’s rough-hewn, acoustic-bred sensibilities corralled and deftly channeled into something vibrant and surprisingly authentic. Kids in the Street is Earle’s successful attempt at delivering songs that are both traditional and relate to a contemporary audience. With jazzed up odes to working class women in Corollas, the future of Americana is looking good.