Though artists have certainly written good songs while in recovery, writing songs about the recovery process itself is a trickier matter. “They get very cheesy very fast. With that language you’re dealing with a bunch of clichés,” says singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, 29.
A few years ago, after a stretch in rehab that capped a spiral of homelessness and drug abuse, Mr. Earle started tinkering with a song about the experience. At the time he was staying with his father, the singer Steve Earle, who cratered in the mid-1990s with heroin and jail, then after cleaning up went into a prolific creative rebirth. Steve’s advice about the song: Don’t go there. If songwriting and recovery don’t remain separate, he counseled, “they can both suffer,” Justin says. “It was one of the very few suggestions from a father you pay attention to right off.”
Now the younger Earle broaches the subject in lyrics more obliquely. On his most recent album, “Harlem River Blues,” he sings, “Why do I try my luck? I should never touch the stuff” on the woozy blues tune “Slippin’ and Slidin.'”
“That was my realization song,” Mr. Earle recalls. It was written last summer when he was touring continuously, had already fallen off the wagon and was on his way to cutting the album in full relapse, marked by a diet of “vodka for breakfast and cocaine for dessert.” He had to keep his head, relatively speaking, in order to write and record the songs on “Harlem River Blues,” working on them during daylight hours when he was pacing his vodka intake. His productivity would cease around 5 p.m., “Usually by that time I was what most people call drunk, then I’d go out and get what I consider drunk.”
Last September, when Mr. Earle was touring in support of the album, his mounting alcohol and cocaine abuse erupted in a violent altercation with a club promoter in Indianapolis. He was arrested, spent the night in jail and soon after was packed off to a rehab facility in Tennessee.
Justin Townes Earle’s slowdown came abruptly. “I woke up with my girlfriend, my lawyer, my booking agent and some guy I’ve never seen before sitting around my bed getting ready to take me off to treatment,” Mr. Earle recalled in a telephone interview from Belfast in Northern Ireland. Following his September dust-up, he spent about a month in rehab. There, Mr. Earle wasn’t allowed to play guitar. Such rules are common in facilities where the goal is to strip away elements of outside life that may be associated with abuse.
Now Mr. Earle is back on tour. He recently performed on David Letterman’s show. He says he is sober, but maybe not for good. “I’m never going to say it’s not going to happen again. I’m smart enough to know that.”