Photo of Justin Townes Earle by Joshua Black Wilkins
Me getting tattooed in Spring 2008
Justin Townes Earle died two days ago on August 23, 2020. He was 38.
In the spring semester of my senior of high school, a firetruck red Conoco/Astros t-shirt was a staple in my wardrobe. One day this kid known as Juicy J (no relation to the Three Six Mafia rapper) stopped me in the hall and said, "Meet up with me tomorrow. I got something for you." The thing is, Juicy J and I barely talked. He ran with the cholo/basketball crowd and I was a punk. I couldn't imagine what he would have for me since we seemed to have nothing in common except we both listened to Paul Wall. The next day came and Juicy J brought me the perfect gift: a matching firetruck red Conoco hat to pair with my shirt. He said he had it lying around never wore it. To this day, I maintain it was the greatest gift I've ever received in my life.
Shortly after receiving the Conoco hat, I got a job scooping ice cream at Amy's Ice Creams over off Shepherd & 59 in Houston. Being an ice cream scooper at that Amy's location back then was a punk rock tradition spanning over a decade; musicians, tattoo artists, local shitheads, future craft bartenders, sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads -- they all did a stint at Amy's at one time or another. This was most likely due to their "No résumés" policy (their application process is an infamous carte blanche white-paper-bag-process in which the prospective employee is given a white paper bag and is asked to come back later with the bag turned into something. It could literally be anything; the only rule was that your name and phone number had to be written on the bag. My paper bag was a working puppet of local punk/experimental drummer and recording engineer Chris Ryan, who also worked at Amy's before my time. My friend Morgan painted and glued her paper bag into a duck with a working duck call installed in its tail (she got hired).
My Amy's application
If you looked out the window of Amy's, you could see one of Houston's legendary independent record stores: Cactus Music. Hanging out at Cactus was totally like hanging out at Empire Records. They even had a free keg there for in-store performances. It didn't hurt that a bunch of my friends also worked there so they'd stop by Amy's all the time to drop off posters and flyers and get some ice cream, too.
I wore my red Conoco hat at work every day due to the requirement that all food handlers have to wear a hat to keep hair out of food, but I lost the hat that December. I was at work and had taken my hat off during my break and couldn't find it when I clocked back in so I wore one of my backup hats. When I got off my shift, I retraced all my steps and couldn't find the hat; I checked the office of the ice cream shop, Cactus Music (where I was looking at some records), and the Whataburger across the street where I got some food. The hat was nowhere to be found. I was devastated.
A day or two later, I actually ended up finding the hat. It wasn't at the ice cream shop or the Whataburger or the record store. Actually, it technically WAS at the record store. Except it wasn't physically there. It was just a photo.
Photo by Craig Hlavaty. Cactus Music, December 2008.
Justin Townes Earle had played an in-store at Cactus the afternoon before his show at the Mucky Duck Pub right down the street. There were photos of his in-store performance on the Houston Press local music blog, Rocks Off. I probably left my hat at Cactus while I was on break and after I clocked back into the ice cream shop to start working, Justin probably showed up at the record store to hang and set up and he probably found my hat somewhere. I'm not gonna lie, it looked good on him. I think he thought so, too, considering he wore it in so many of his press photos that year. I tried to hit his management up through MySpace (because that's how the internet worked back then) and never got a response. I didn't even want the hat back at that point. I just wanted my story verified that he found the hat somewhere in Houston between Amy's Ice Creams, Whataburger, and Cactus Music. Nobody ever got back to me. I guess now I'll never know the truth.
Justin wasn't the only Earle to have ties to Cactus. His dad, legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, played at Cactus once and found a stray dog hanging around outside the store. Steve wrangled her up and named her Chili and gave her to my friend Andrew, one of the employees at the record store. Steve gave Andrew a hundred bucks in cash and said to him, "Go to the vet and get the dog checked out. And you better not spend this money on drugs."
Well, I can assure you that Andrew took the dog to the vet and got her chipped and her shots up to date. He also renamed her Ladybird after Ladybird Johnson.
Andrew, Steve Earle, and Chili (now known as Ladybird)
Me and Ladybird
I loved the music that Justin Townes Earle made. My favorite recording of his is this stripped down rendition of Mama's Eyes.