Justin Townes Earle performing at the Echo in Echo Park on Feb. 11 (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
When Colin Gilmore was 8, he remembers his father, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, coming to Lubbock, Texas, to play — and being on the local news. "He'd moved to Austin by then, so it was good to see my dad, but strange he was on TV. There was no notion he was gonna be a Texas legend, so we were all surprised," the son says, marveling at the gap between his sense of a parent and the public perception.
Gilmore's father — like his mom and their friends — played music. That's just what they did; the trail-blazing wasn't planned. Gilmore, along with Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and Kevin Welch, was part of what is jokingly called "Nashville's Great Credibility Scare of the '80s." Suddenly, the slick commercialism that pivoted between drinking, cheating and salvation fostered a subgenre considered cool. Many of these artists earned platinum records, hit singles, even critical praise in Rolling Stone magazine.
Twenty-five years later, their children — based in Texas (Gilmore, the Welches), Brooklyn, N.Y. (Earle) and Nashville (Crowell) — are emerging with records created even farther from the mainstream business.
Raised on the era's creative charge, Gilmore, Justin Townes Earle, Chelsea Crowell, Dustin and Savannah Welch (with an all-girl roots band, the Trishas) make music without surrendering to major-label expectations. Their work is song-driven, long on vibe — be it Earle's retro-Southern, the Trishas' spare bluegrass, Gilmore's post-punk folk, Crowell's lush sensualism or Welch's urgently dark roots songs.
"You learn the business is its own entity," Earle says. "You can make music for the business or make music to last.… If you don't work for the business, then you have to figure how to make the business work for you."
Earle, the 2009 Americana emerging artist award-winner, is the most successful of these "children of the revolution" with three critically acclaimed albums on Chicago's Bloodshot Records. There was "The Good Life," recorded in four days, "Midnight at the Movies," recorded in five, and "Harlem River Blues," recorded in a week — all decidedly throwbacks to the Deep South, be it beer joints or churches.
Though his father toured during his youth, Earle found music young. He says of observed lessons, "I watched my father do some funny things in his personal life, and it fed his art. When you're living the creative process, you don't clock in and out. When I was 19 and completely strung out, he took me out as a roadie and I played a bit. I watched a man almost 50 work his … off, who was so focused on what he was doing. It showed me work ethic, a real heart-and-soul approach that makes it more than an art form or a job."
Earle tours heavily and realized early that his name was a blessing and a curse. It opened doors and raised expectations — but those expectations forced a quality-control. "When you start with my middle and last names," he says, calling from London, "how much worse can the expectations be? My father is one of the greatest songwriters who's ever lived, and I couldn't write a song like Townes Van Zandt if my life depended on it! But you know going through the door you're gonna be judged based on that, so you better be ready.
"I knew I couldn't make a bad record. … I'd be burned at the stake. So I give you a little more history — be it Woody Guthrie or the gospel from either side of Tennessee, the Carter Family in the east or the Staples in Memphis … and I write about where people's lives are."
Adding poetry to "where people's lives are" was the parents' trademark. Kyle Young, president of the Country Music Hall of Fame, remembers arriving in Nashville in the '80s. "It was a confederation of poets. It wasn't about money or fame but commenting on the human condition that was so personal, but stuff you'd be going through and couldn't express.… It was like this great Bukowski poem the way they lived and created. It just made Nashville that much cooler and artistic."
The kids knew their parents weren't like the other adults.
"There was a community," remembers Chelsea Crowell, whose atmospheric alternative-folk Tremolo Trees made Nashville Scene's 2009 top 10 albums. "They were pushing, breaking rules, seeing where they could take the music. There was so much energy and creativity."
Reluctant to get in the "family business" for fear "people would pull the nepotism card," Crowell went for it because the way she feels when she writes "feels like nothing else," she says. "Nothing matters more than that." Pausing, her dark hair and deep eyes favoring the Cash genes, she defines her music's reality. "I'm doing what I want, making music the way I think it should be. I'm happy broke and working whatever job so I can. Being their kid, I hate what fame can do, but it showed me to be fearless about creativity."