Chicago is a town so important to Justin Townes Earle that he’s not afraid to namecheck it in one of his songs. On “Trouble Is,” from the singer-songwriter’s new album, “Kids in the Street,” for example, Earle sings autobiographically about getting a job in Chicago. Earle got his music start “in the hills” of East Tennessee when he was 15, but two years later in 2000, he became a Chicago resident.
Justin Townes Earle With: The Sadies When: 7:30 p.m. May 20 Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Tickets: $25-$35 Info: thaliahallchicago.com
“I just went to visit [the city] and do a show there and didn’t want to leave,” Earle says. “It definitely played a role in my early development as an artist, for sure. …That’s kind of one of those ‘old hillbilly goes to the city looking for work’ kind of songs.”
For a couple of years, Earle lived in Rogers Park, not far from the lake or the Jarvis Red Line stop.
“I was doing all the little shows I could get my hands on,” he says. “I was still learning a lot at that particular point in time. That was 17 years ago. I was a kid and Rogers Park was a very different place.”
Though he no longer lives here, Chicago is still a very special place for the 35-year-old. With eight studio albums, he has had plenty of material for his return gigs. One of the first times he played the city was as a teenager opening for his father, Steve Earle, at the Riviera. (It was one of the few times he would do so.) He’s also a lifelong Cubs fan, having attended Games 4 and 5 of the World Series, he says.
“Kids In The Street” is Earle’s personal breakthrough. After releasing autobiographical companion albums “Single Mothers” (2014) and “Absent Fathers “(2015), where he often looked inwardly and negatively at his past, the new album finds the songwriter in a more positive state of mind. In addition to coming to terms with his newfound sobriety and drug-free life, his marriage and impending fatherhood have him eagerly looking to the future.
One area he did revisit with “Kids” was the blues and rock and roll sound of his earlier albums.
“I wanted to go back to where I started, which is kind of a blues mixed with early rock and roll kind of thing,” Earle says. “I wanted to revisit the ideas that I started with on ‘Harlem River Blues,’ and not make the same record but pick up where we left off with that record.”
He also is having fun writing not-so-serious songs, including “Champagne Corolla,” a Chuck Berry-like song about a girl and a car.
“It’s definitely a more relaxing place to be,” he says.
The album also marked several big recording changes. In addition to being his first album on a new label (New West Records), it’s the first album helmed by an outside producer (Mike Mogis) and first recorded outside of Nashville (Omaha-based ARC Studios).
“With these guys in Omaha, there was less of a staunch adherence to the past, which was important to this record,” says Earle. “Which was ‘let me keep my foot firmly planted in the past and use a producer and musicians who aren’t necessarily steeped in the same music that I was.’ So they had different sensibilities and ideas.”
As he gets ready to play Chicago again, he’ll be backed by veteran Canadian rock band The Sadies.
“They’re one of the best bands that ever walked the face of the Earth,” he says. “We’ve wanted to work for quite a while. I’m glad it’s finally working out.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.