Justin Townes Earle understood what Flint gave to America.
There are many songs written about American cities. There is New York and Frank Sinatra, Memphis and the blues, Journey and its song about Detroit, and many others. But no song comes up quickly about my hometown, Flint, Michigan.
Flint is the kind of place they make documentary movies about and where the television news magazines cover in breathless disbelief at the high crime and poverty. Lately, Flint has been bathed in stories about its lead-tainted water for the last five years. To discover songs about Flint, Michigan, I stumbled onto something extraordinary.
To discover songs about Flint, Michigan. It was like visiting an estate sale and discovering the handwritten chapters of an exemplary writer whose works were yet to be discovered. In this case, I came across a young musician who recently died and left behind an amazing catalog of social commentary put to music. Among these brilliant songs was a tune about Flint, Michigan. It was insightful and accurate in describing the city that I stopped everything I was doing!
Here is the backstory, this musician was not unknown. Justin Townes Earle drew the respect of critics and a small but devoted following. His writings songs of heartbreak, loss, and family with a dark narrative undertow and a sepia-toned folk-rock style that could hark back to folk-country icon Townes Van Zandt or Hank Williams. Justin Earle was named after Townes Van Zandt.
Singer-Songwriter Justine Townes Earle was a Nashville, Tennessee native who understood Flint, Michigan perfectly. Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote: "The music isn't pumped up with arena-rock flourishes or computer tricks, and it doesn't hide bruises and aches. It draws proudly on Southern soul."
Although Justin never played a gig in Flint, he was eager to find his way to a stage in the Flint area. He died before he had his opportunity. Earle penned the song "Flint City Shake" that encapsulates the history and importance of Flint, Michigan, to America.
Perhaps it could be said that Justine Townes Earle, with a pedigree in music given to him by his famous father, musician Steve Earle, was a social commentator through his music. In Justin's last album, "The Saint of Lost Causes," released in 2019 before his untimely death in August 2020, at age 38, Townes took on America's social problems. He did so in the finest traditions of Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Harry Belafonte and Bruce Springsteen.
He released eight full albums as a solo artist, most recently "The Saint of Lost Causes," in 2019.
In an April 1, 2020 interview, Earle told Billboard magazine that he saw a difference between politics and social issues.
On his last recorded album, he included a song about Flint, Michigan, and its water crisis, as well as a song about Charleston, West Virginia, and its closed coal mines. Two places that, at first blush, have little in common.
Later in an April 2020 Billboard magazine interview, Earle said, "I don't think people in Flint, Mich., and Charleston, W. Va., think they have anything in common, but they do -- a lot in common," explains Earle, whose first song for the album was "Flint City Shake." "These are people, who have driven America through by industry, and then had America completely turn their backs on them. So, I see that connection there. You see distinct cultures and distinct in different towns, but they are dealing with the same kinds of problems."
Earl also said during the interview that his song about Flint, Michigan, was not written for politicians but rather the people; I'm not gonna waste my breath. I'm gonna talk to the people, we the people, and do my best as a songwriter, and somebody up on stage to let people feel like I stand amongst them and make them feel like I stand shoulder to shoulder with them."
Justin Townes Earle spoke eloquently in music, reminiscent of the message filmmaker Michael Moore delivered in the 1989 documentary film "Roger and Me." This time the message to the people of America about Flint was set to music.
Particularly remarkable is how Earle, who must have studied the history of General Motors, writes:
"Then trouble comes in '86 With this son of a bitch named Roger Smith Cut our throat with a stroke of a fountain pen We're knocked down, but we're gonna get up again."
Justin Townes Earl put Moore's movie into four succinct lines in a song regarding the incompetent GM Chairman Roger Smith.
Justin Townes Earle never had an opportunity to perform his tribute song for the people of Flint, with its searing indictment of America for abandoning the workers that built the nation's tremendous economic strength. His socially powerful message will surely live on until another young performer picks up where he left off his message.
One can speculate why someone like Justin Townes Earle could find such empathy, kinship, and understanding for the struggles of the hardworking people of Flint and West Virginia. Mr. Earle dealt with personal struggles from age two when his famous dad left him and his mom.
Mr. Earle spoke openly about his struggles with addiction, which he said began as early as age 12 and included the use of heroin and crack cocaine. He seemed to be following in the footsteps of his father, whose own troubles with drugs have been well documented.
"I always knew there was something different about the way that I used drugs and drank to the way that my friends did," the younger Mr. Earle told the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman in 2015. "But it's a wild thing to wake up when you're 16 years old and realize you can't stop shooting up."
In the meantime, the people of the City of Flint who never knew Justin Townes Earle lost a great advocate. He indeed stood out above those who sing with nothing to say. He stood up for the real America and social and economic justice.
Let's hope that the message of despair about Flint's current condition, a city mired in two catastrophic public health crises, namely the lack of drinking water and COVID-19, is not lost in the media hubris.
Justin Townes Earle understood what the people of Flint gave America; his words are a great tribute to Flint's legacy.
Below are the lyrics to "Flint City Shaking." His music is available on his website:
Written by: Justin Townes Earle
Detroit rock, baby, that's a fact Anybody says different, better get back, Jack Well, you've gotta be tough, but there's a good time to be had. I'd like to think everybody here knows that.
So let's talk about a place that you might not know, Just a little further on up the road Well you know about meat, baby, let's get down to the bones. Tell you 'bout a place that made America roll.
Flint City shake it (Flint City shake it) Flint City shake it (Flint City shake it) Let 'em all know (let 'em all know) Let 'em all know (let 'em all know) Detroit rock but Flint City roll.
Now the truth is, we ain't what we used to be whole lotta trouble comes to our streets The only one to blame is GMC
If you don't know, baby, let me tell you how I mean
We built Buick cars, GM trucks, Chevy engines, AC sparkplugs, Built planes for the war back in '41, Every piece straight from the ground on up
Then trouble comes in '86 With this son of a bitch named Roger Smith, cut our throat with a stroke of a fountain pen We're knocked down but we're gonna get up again
Flint City shake it (Flint City shake it) Flint City shake it (Flint City shake it) Let 'em all know (let 'em all know) Let 'em all know (let 'em all know) Detroit rock but Flint City roll (roll)
Well, there ain't no work, and everybody's hurtin' It's been that way for a while They ain't got us licked just yet Flint City knows how to have a good time
Well, we might be poor, and we might be rough We're just good people down on our luck, And you know it seems nobody cares about us We just ain't the kind to give up
Flint City shake it (Flint City shake it) Flint City shake it (Flint City shake it) Let 'em all know (let 'em all know) Let 'em all know (let 'em all know) Detroit rock but Flint City roll (roll) Detroit rock but Flint City roll