Legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle strode onto the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on January 4, 2023 - what would have been his late son Justin Townes Earle’s 41st birthday - and declared: “Nobody wants to do what I’m doing here tonight.”
Then for the next two hours, as the Master of Ceremony, Steve led a heart-felt musical tribute to Justin, who died at the age of 38 in August 2020. Justin was a star singer-songwriter in his own right, having recorded one EP and eight studio albums including the classic Harlem River Blues, the title track being the Americana Song of the Year in 2011.
The following year Rolling Stone listed his next release Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now as number 37 on its Top 50 Albums for 2012 and so declared: “The son of country-rock renegade Steve Earle has grown into a songwriter to rival his Dad.”
There was no better accolade to his song-writing skills than the Ryman concert which saw Steve and 16 other acts each cover songs composed by Justin. The only exception was the show closer, “Last Words” - a true heart-breaker Steve wrote as the final track on JT, his 2021 tribute album of Justin songs.
The Ryman concert had been scheduled to mark his 40th birthday on January 4, 2022, but was a pandemic postponement. Steve stitched the event together, not only introducing each guest but, in doing so, providing intuitive context to Justin’s life and career. And, as might be expected, providing musical continuity to all artists was Steve’s long-time band The Dukes – Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle/keyboard), Chris Masterson (guitar), Brad Pemberton (drums), Jeff Hill (bass) and Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel). And they were indeed magical in interpreting whatever song each guest pulled out of Justin’s diverse catalogue.
The death of any artist will lead to the inevitable analysis of their work left behind. Justin saw himself primarily as a songwriter and he was indeed prolific as such. For of the 76 songs on his eight albums, only one was not written or co-written by him. And central to his work was his obvious infatuation with the human condition.
Fittingly it was decided that the tribute show should not only start with the title track from his very first record, the E.P. Yuma, but also be performed by a family member – Aunt Stacey Earle with Uncle Mark Stuart. And this particular song personifies Justin’s seeming obsession with human frailties. There a few songs so mournful than one which ends:
So with the wind in his hair and a smile on his face
He crashes the hood of an Olds ‘98
And he lays there dying on a cold winter’s day
All Alone All Alone
“You’re not alone Justin, we’re all here tonight,” Aunt Stacey shouted as they left the stage to instant applause from a packed Ryman.
There were big names in the line-up like Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Elizabeth Cook and husband and wife Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires (playing separately). But central to this celebration were the salt-of-the-earth musicians who worked and crossed paths with JT during his nearly two decades as a performer. And this included the writers of the two songs co-written among the eight albums.
Dustin Welch, son of country star and record company founder Kevin Welch, played with Justin when they were both teenagers in a Nashville bluegrass combo called The Swindlers. And at that time they wrote their first song together “ Down On The Lower East Side” which made it onto the acclaimed Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Welch did a soft and moving version, thanks largely to stunning, almost weeping, fiddle from Eleanor Whitmore.
The other co-writer to work with Justin in those early days was Scotty Melton and he was soon on stage to deliver their beautiful “Rogers Park,” from Harlem River Blues. This saw The Dukes again at their very best, with Whitmore now on piano. It was a song which came to Justin while living in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Besides Welch, there were two other offspring of country greats on hand to demonstrate DNA talent.
John Hiatt’s daughter Lilly Hiatt did a simply exquisite cover of “White Gardenias” from JT’s 2014 release Single Mothers, while Shooter Jennings, son of legend Waylon, would have made his dad proud with a majestic version of the Harlem River Blues favourite “Workin' for the MTA” – nicely enhanced by the understated pedal steel of Ricky Ray Jackson.
When introducing Shooter, Steve made reference to a conversation he had with him soon after Justin’s death. Shooter and Justin became friends while living in New York. “They had bonded on the idea that they both had to go out and do what they do in the shadow of parents, that, you know, have left pretty big shadows.” He paused, then added: “Shooter’s dad had a shadow a bit bigger than mine.”
Steve said that conversation was significant when looking back in his relationship with Justin. “Some of the things I went through with Justin never made sense to me until that moment. And I will be forever grateful to Shooter Jennings for that.”
It was not surprising that the Harlem River Blues was the album of choice for the majority of tracks selected for the tribute. And a big name who had a pivotal role in the production of that album was Jason Isbell who played electric guitar during those 2009 recording sessions. And he was also on guitar and backing vocals when Justin sang "Harlem River Blues" on the David Letterman Show
“That David Letterman show I did with Justin was 12 years ago tomorrow,” Isbell said, adjusting his microphone. “Justin brought me the suit I wore on that Letterman show. He also bought me the suit I got married in too as I did not have one for that either.” Much applause from the Ryman faithful before he launched into a vigorous version of “Slippin’ And Slidin” – complete with guitar riffs with Chris Masterson.
Isbell had also joked that JT would have got a kick out of the fact that he had to follow Emmylou Harris. “That’s not fair,” he quipped.
Harris and Steve Earle go way back as friends and music collaborators. (He even mentioned later in the evening that she and Waylon Jennings were among the few who sent him cards and letters when he was locked up in 1994.) And Steve repeated his old mantra that Emmylou was the one person most songwriters in Nashville wanted to cover their compositions.
On the night, it was son Justin that Emmy would cover as she - without guitar - pranced around the Ryman stage with a simply joyful version of “One More Night in Brooklyn.”
Emmylou’s appearance came in the same week that she was listed at number 79 on the Rolling Stone 200 Greatest Singers, the magazine describing her as “arguably the greatest American harmony vocalist of the past half-century.”
When it finally came the time for Steve to put an instrument around his neck, one question remained: What tracks from his JT album he would chose for this big night?
He and The Dukes soon launched into “Far Away in Another Town” from Justin’s very first full album “The Good Life.” They then went full circle to his final release and the hypnotic title track from the impressive 2019 The Saint of Lost Causes. By now The Dukes were at full speed, with some delightful jamming between husband and wife - guitar-master Masterson and fiddler Whitmore.
The grand finale was no surprise. All artists returned to the stage to deliver a full-throttle
“Harlem River Blues,” with Jason and Steve trading verses.
All that remained was for Steve’s final, sole tribute. And he chose “Last Words,” the aching song he wrote for a lost son.
The last thing I said
Was I love you
Your last words to me were
I love you too
He exited stage right, looked up at the huge Justin art portrait, which had hovered over all acts, and shouted: “See you when I get there cowboy.”
Set list – A Celebration of Justin Townes Earle: Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, “Yuma” Bonnie Whitmore, “Maria” Dustin Welch, “Down On The Lower Eastside” Willy and Cody Braun (Reckless Kelly), “Maybe a Moment” Lilly Hiatt, “White Gardenias” Scotty Melton, “Rogers Park” Ben Nichols (Lucero), “Memphis in the Rain” Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Learning to Cry” Joe Pug, “Mama’s Eyes” Elizabeth Cook, “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This” Jon Langford, “Poor Fool” Buddy Miller, “Lone Pine Hill” Emmylou Harris, “One More Night in Brooklyn” Jason Isbell, “Slippin’ and Slidin'” Amanda Shires, “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” Shooter Jennings, “Workin’ for the MTA” Steve Earle, “Far Away in Another Town,” “The Saint of Lost Causes,” “Harlem River Blues,” “Last Words”
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation