When Steve Earle dedicated two albums to the songs of dearly-departed friends – Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark –it probably never crossed his mind that one day he would do the same for a dearly-departed son.
But on January 4, 2021, the day Justin Townes Earle would have turned 39, Steve, with his long-time band The Dukes, released J.T., an album dedicated to son Justin who died of an accidental drugs overdose last August.
“The record is called J.T. because Justin was never called anything else until he was nearly grown,” Earle said in a statement prior to the release. “Well, when he was little, I called him Cowboy. For better or worse, right or wrong, I loved Justin Townes Earle more than anything else on this earth. That being said, I made this record, like every other record I’ve ever made. . . for me. It was the only way I knew to say goodbye.”
There are 11 tracks, 10 of them songs recorded by Justin on six of his eight full-length albums and an early EP. The 11th and final song, called “Last Words,” is a heartfelt tribute written by Steve for the son who succumbed to the addictions his father also battled for a good part of his life.
The relationship between the two had been strained for years, especially when a younger Justin was kicked out of his dad’s band due to drug and alcohol issues. Even though at times they appeared on the same bill at several music festivals, they seldom joined each other in performance. A good example was the 2012 Byron Bay Bluesfest – Australia’s leading annual roots and blues festival - where both played, but at no time together, even though Steve joined some of the other acts onstage.
Justin made no secret of the rift and one of his finest songs, “Mama’s Eye”, dealt with the complex relationship with both parents and the opening lines pulled no punches: I am my father's son/ I've never known when to shut up/I ain't fooling no one/ I am my father's son/ We don't see eye to eye
There was somewhat of a reconciliation in recent years, with the odd performance together. And a few years ago, Steve told No Depression: “Our relationship is fine, but I think it will always have its edge. We have a strange past and we’re both in a business that has a certain amount of ego, a certain amount of ‘I know that I can do this.’ It’s inevitable that it will lead to a certain amount of personality clash.”
As might be expected, “Mama’s Eyes” did not make Steve’s tribute album, one that is trawled largely from Justin’s early releases, with four of the tracks – “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving”/”Far Away in Another Town”/”Turn Out My Lights”/”Lone Pine Hill” – off his first 2008 full-length album The Good Life and another, “I Don’t Care” off the six-track Yuma, released around the same time.
What Steve and The Dukes do with this selection is simply wonderful. Steve’s earthy, drawling vocals contrast somewhat with Justin’s more supple, less mature tones, but for the most part all the songs remain true to Justin’s intent. This is certainly so for the two title track songs from Justin’s two most acclaimed albums – Harlem River Blues (2010) and The Saint of Lost Causes (2019), his last release.
Steve and The Dukes give a little more bluesy grunt to “The Saint of Lost Causes”, with Steve nicely delivering, with emphasis, some of Justin’s better lines like You might find a wolf in shepherd's clothes/And now and then you're gonna find sheep/In amongst all those troubled souls.
Justin’s signature song “Harlem River Blues” gets more of a makeover, with a fiddle and pedal steel guitar. But Steve’s jaunty version is simply riveting and it still includes the a cappella ending as in the original. And, of course, the story about someone going to the Harlem River to drown is even more prophetic with the lines Tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried/ Give my money to my baby to spend. And that is exactly what Steve will do, with all royalties going to a trust for Justin and Jenn Marie Earle’s daughter, Etta St. James Earle.
The Dukes are at their best on “Champagne Corolla,” the opening track on Justin’s 2017 album Kids In The Street. The elaborate guitar-work is nicely in sync and Steve’s racy vocal treatment gets as close to Justin’s as in any of the other songs.
And while Steve’s self-penned “Last Words” is predictably sad, it is not despairing. As an acoustic guitar gently strums, he slowly laments: Last time we spoke was on the phone/And we hung up and now you’re gone/Last thing I said was I love you/Your last words to me were I love you too
The song may provide a sad ending, but, like this endearing tribute album, it is never weepy.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation.