The last time Justin Townes Earle visited Newcastle in September, 2019, he came out for the encore after an intense set, without a shirt on. His skinny frame was dotted with tattoos, it was a classic touch, like a kid who had found a new way of making a statement.
He was always impeccably dressed, his lean figure cutting a handsome shadow, and looked particularly funky when he danced while playing.
Justin Townes Earle died over the weekend. The cause of death has not been released.
At age 38, he left behind a catalog of great music, all his own, not bearing the signature of his legendary father, Steve Earle, who got him started in the music business as a teenager and blessed him with the name Townes, after Steve's good friend, Townes Van Zandt.
His last album, The Saint of Lost Causes, explored several troubling issues in modern day America, including racism, drug addiction, pollution and poverty. Along with rockabilly (Ain't Got No Money) and ballads, there were some pure folk songs, like Frightened by the Sound. All up, some of his best material ever.
He achieved a modicum of fame with the title song from his breakout album, Harlem River Blues earning Song of the Year at the 2011 Americana music awards. He toured heavily and produced nine albums of original material.
Justin Townes Earle played Newcastle on several occasions, usually including Lizotte's on his Australian tours. He had a great affinity for Australia, but never feared taking a stand or pointing to the faults of Australian society.
He had dealt with mental health and drug addictions throughout his career, but as a performer, he was professional and astute. He had a keen and biting sense of humour.
In an interview several years ago when he had developed a reputation as a party animal with drug and drinking problems, I asked him about one pop music writer's prediction that listed him as one of the top 10 stars most likely to die in 2011.
Earle was 31 at the time. I asked him if he was safe now, and he responded without hesitation: "I think I am. It's not cool to die in your 30s."