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Intense Row over Jason Isbell Tribute Song

Jason Isbell is reluctant to engage in any debate over his tribute song to Justin Townes Earle

The creative license of songwriters to implicate individuals - either living or dead - in their work has suddenly been brought into sharp focus following a high-profile row that has broken out involving two of the biggest names in Americana music.

On April 12, Jenn Marie Earle, the widow of Justin Townes Earle, went on social media to finally make public her views on Jason Isbell's song "When We Were Close" which deals with the death of her singer-songwriter husband from an accidental overdose in 2020. A few days later, she further detailed her concerns in an interview on the Saving Country Music website.

"When We Were Close" generated much creative praise when it was included on Isbell's 2023 album Weathervanes, which would win him and his band, the 400 Unit, a 2024 Grammy for Best Americana Album. The song was released as a radio single and ended up as one of the most-played songs on Americana radio during 2023. Isbell has performed it live, often as the opening song on the Weathervanes promotional tour. And he also included it during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Isbell and Earle were once close friends, and Jason even provided backing for Justin's most popular composition "Harlem River Blues." But they would become estranged - apparently for a host of complicated reasons, and had not been on speaking terms for a decade when Justin died. Both musicians had a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

For months, there has been conjecture and scuttlebutt on social media about specific lyrics in the song. Despite all this, Earle's widow refrained from making any public comment until she saw a quote Isbell made about the song during a panel interview at Ohio University. His reply to a specific question was somewhat vague but he made reference to "... that song ("When We Were Close") was one of those where I had to say how many victims (will there be) if I tell the truth, how many victims if I don't. And then you make that choice."

This prompted Jenn Marie to make both a video and a posted statement on the Instagram account of justintownesearle. She wrote: "Being the said 'victims' he is speaking of, I felt that in response, it is time to share my feelings on this song, the impact it has had on us, and why we had such a strong, visceral, and extremely painful reaction to it that has continued now, almost a year since its release last June"

Though neither Justin, Jenn Marie or their six-year-old daughter Etta, are actually named, his widow is adamant that she and her daughter are "both mentioned/referenced in the song."

In her interview with Saving Country Music, she specifically singled out the song's third verse as hurtful as it had a direct reference to their daughter:

I saw a picture of you laughing with your child

And I hope she will remember how you smiled

And she probably wasn't old enough, the night somebody sold your stuff

That left you on the bathroom tiles

She further elaborated, saying that when Etta heard the line, she realised it was about herself and became emotionally traumatized. "When she cried about it, I wrote (Jason) a long message saying: ' I have a little girl in the car crying right now because of your song.'" When asked by Saving Country Music if Isbell had addressed the matter or answered the particular message, Jenn Marie replied: "Not at all."

However, it seems Isbell did make contact with a member of the Earle family - Justin's legendary singer-songwriter father Steve - prior to release.

Jenn Marie acknowledges this but believes Steve was vague about the actual content. "When I asked Steve about it, he hadn't heard it. He just approved it. I don't think any of Steve's family have fully acknowledged this song. I don't know the specific details, but I do know it happened without (Steve) knowing the actual content of the song." she told SCM.

Writing songs about dead musicians is nothing new. There are countless songs about, and dedicated to, passed legends like Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and John Lennon.

And in fact, the creative process Isbell employed to craft his tribute to Justin actually references two tribute songs. And both are by principal players in this somewhat incestuous saga - Justin's father Steve and his close friend Townes Van Zandt, the man Justin Townes Earle was indeed named after.

Van Zandt died at the age of 52 on New Year's Day, 1997, after what might be described as a somewhat rigorous life. A decade older than Steve Earle, he proved to be a mentor for his fellow-Texan when Steve was starting out as a musician in his late teens in the early 1970's. The pair shared the same passion for music, women and addictive substances.

Justin Townes Earle died from an accidental overdose in 2020 at the age of 38

Van Zandt's numerous compositions have long been acclaimed for their delightful word-play and often seen as the nearest thing to poetry in music. There is no better example than "Rex's Blues," a song he recorded in 1978 about Rex "Wrecks" Bell, a colourful character who founded the Old Quarter bar, a popular music venue in Houston, Texas.

Isbell openly references "Rex's Blues" in the chorus of "When We Were Close:"

I was the worst of the two of us

But Rex's Blues wasn't through with us

You were bound for glory and grown to die

Oh but why wasn't I

Wasn't I?

The use of the phrase You were bound for glory and grown to die relates directly to a Van Zandt stanza in "Rex's Blues:"

A restless tongue to classify

All born to grow and grown to die

The other tribute song invoked by Isbell is "Fort Worth Blues" the one Steve Earle actually wrote as a tribute to Townes. It is seen as one of Steve's finest compositions, largely because it employs similar word composition to much of the Van Zandt material and indeed many think that if Townes were to have written a tribute to himself, this would be it.

Isbell invokes the song when he changes the final chorus to:

I was the worst of the two of us

But the Fort Worth Blues isn't through with us

You've travelled beyond the Great Divide

Oh but why wasn't I

Wasn't I?

The use of the Great Divide derives from verse three in "Fort Worth Blues:"

Somewhere up beyond the Great Divide

Where the sky is wide

And the clouds are few

Despite the obviously justifiable concerns Jenn Marie may have with the song and how it relates to her and Etta, it is difficult to discern anything malicious on the part of Isbell. He appears to have made an honest, and somewhat concerted, effort to best remember someone he was once close to in both music and life.

There is no doubt that the whole issue of how far writers can take creative license to interpret people and events in real life is now far more forensic, given the often offensive influence of social media. Indeed, just as the Earle-Isbell row was intensifying, tongues started wagging and keyboards furiously tapping over the release of the new Taylor Swift album which included several songs about old lost loves. But, hey, that is a whole new saga!

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation


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