For his full-length debut, Justin Townes Earle resists the temptation to ride the coattails of his two famous namesakes (his father, Steve Earle, and singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt) and instead lays bare a much broader set of influences. Anyone expecting the son of Steve Earle to be another gravel-voiced, rock-leaning, political shit-stirrer will be surprised by The Good Life, which owes as much to old-timey acoustic blues and country as it does to the singer-songwriter types who have had more obvious impact on the contemporary Americana scene. From the hard-country twang of opener “Hard Livin’” to “Lone Pine Hill,” a remarkably well-executed story-song told from the perspective of a Civil War soldier, much of the record is a throwback in the best sense of that term. The title track and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” both sound like long-lost singles from Ray Price or Hank Williams Sr., while “South Georgia Sugar Babe” recalls the hybrid of country and blues that was Lightnin’ Hopkins’s trademark sound.
What elevates Good Life over, to pick the obvious parallels, Hank Williams III’s Risin’ Outlow and Shooter Jennings’s Put the ‘O’ Back in Country is that Earle’s debut isn’t limited to simple retro-minded mimicry. In addition to an excellent command of the natural meter of language, his writing shows a refreshing willingness to reference both his troubled youth (given something of an ironic remove on “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” and addressed more directly on the title track) and complicated relationships (standout first single “Who Am I to Say” tackles the thorny issue of resolving his dad’s artistic mythology with their often troubled father-son dynamic) in ways that fit naturally into his traditional song structures. It remains to be seen if Earle can do something even more progressive with his influences (something Hank III finally accomplished with Straight to Hell), but Good Life proves that he has far more than just a first-rate pedigree working in his favor.