Steve Earle’s New Album J.T. is Warm Tribute to His Late Son Justin Townes Earle

…I wish I could have held you when/You left this world like I did then/Last time we spoke was on the phone/Then we hung up and now you’re gone/Last thing I said, “I love you”/Your last words to me were, “I love you too”…

On January 4, Steve Earle released his new album J.T., backed by his longtime band The Dukes. The background story behind this tribute to his late son, the singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, is quite sad. On August 20 last year, Justin passed away at the age of 38 from an accidental overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine. January 4 would have been his 39th birthday.

The thought of losing a child at such a young age is horrible enough. But there’s more to the story. The two men had a complicated relationship. Steve left Justin and his mother Carol Ann Hunter Earle when the boy was just three years old. Between music, touring, drug addiction and serving prison time for drug possession, Steve Earle was out of his son’s life for the next 12 years.

Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle in 1999.
Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle in 1999. Credit: Sara Sharpe

By the time Justin, whose middle name was in honor of Steve’s musical mentor Townes van Zandt, reunited and lived with his then-sober father in 1994, he had developed a drug addiction as well. The two men developed a close musical relationship, and for some time, Justin played in his father’s band. But according to a review in American Songwriter, he was kicked out after his drug addiction had deteriorated and essentially prevented him from functioning.

American Songwriter notes Justin’s forced exit caused the distance to Steve to grow again, though apparently, they made up in recent years. Unlike his dad, Justin wasn’t able to become sober despite multiple rehab attempts. Yet he still managed to have a music career that included stints in Nashville bands the Swindlers and the Distributors, and a solo recording career that encompassed an EP and eight studio albums between February 2007 and May 2020.

Time for some music. Ten of the 11 tracks on J.T., titled after Justin’s nickname as a child, are songs by Justin Townes Earle, of which he co-wrote two with Scotty Melton. The closer Last Words was penned by Steve Earle. Let’s kick it off with the opener I Don’t Care, a tune from Justin’s debut EP Yuma released in February 2007.

Far Away in Another Town is the closer from Justin’s first full-length solo album The Good Life that appeared in March 2008. It’s one of the two songs he co-wrote with Melton.

Another tune from The Good Life that certainly took on a new meaning is Turn Out My Lights. This also happens to be the second of the aforementioned co-writes with Melton.

Harlem River Blues is the title track of Justin’s third studio album. Released in September 2010, it became his first to enter the Billboard 200, reaching no. 47. It also climbed to no. 3 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the above noted closer Last Words, the most personal track on the album. The lyrical excerpt in the beginning of the post is from that song.

Recording the album “wasn’t cathartic as much as it was therapeutic,” Earle told The New York Times. “I made the record because I needed to.” The Times also noted Earle went through Justin’s catalog together with his other son Ian to select the 10 tracks.

I wasn’t familiar at all with Justin’s music. Based on listening to the original tunes, Justin’s versions for the most part were more stripped back than the covers on this album. Much of my initial attraction to J.T. came from the warm sound. Which brings me to the fine musicians of The Dukes: Chris Masterson (guitar), Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle), Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel guitar), Jeff Hill (bass) and Brad Pemberton (drums).

“It felt positive,” Earle’s longtime recording engineer Ray Kennedy told The New York Times, referring to the recording sessions. “It felt like we were taking an expression of somebody’s art and creativity and giving it back to the world in a different package.”

The last word shall belong to Steve Earle: “I’ve never loved anything in this world more than him,” he said. “I was connected to him in ways that, you know — he’s my first born, he did the same thing I did and we both had this disease.”

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; The New York Times; YouTube

11 thoughts on “Steve Earle’s New Album J.T. is Warm Tribute to His Late Son Justin Townes Earle”

    1. Mit ein paar Ausnahmen klingt dieses Album eigentlich relativ “froehlich.” Gleichwohl ist es sicherlich Steve Earles Medium seine Trauer und vielleicht auch sein Schuldbewusstsein auszudruecken.

      Die Hintergrundsgeschichte von Jason und ihm ist ja wirklich traurig. Wenigstens scheinen sich die beiden vor Jasons Tod weitgehend ausgesoehnt zu haben.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Steve Earle habe vor ein paar Jahren in einem intensiven Konzert in Zürich erlebt. Ich weiss, dass er während Jahren Drogen nahm und deswegen ein Jahr im Gefängnis sass und sieben gescheiterte Ehen hinter sich hatte. Als Vater war er bestimmt nicht häufig da für seinen Sohn, der nun vor ihm gestorben ist. Das Nachruf-Album klingt düster und traurig, aber es ist auch eine Feier des Lebens für den Sohn.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So wie mir dies erscheint, verkoerpert Steve Earle eine der leider viel zu haeufigen deprimierenden Hintergrundsgeschichten des Musikgeschaefts. Mein “Held” John Lennon war ja auch nicht gerade ein Mustervater fuer Julian.

        Jason Townes Earle moechte ich mir auf jeden Fall etwas naeher betrachten. Die Songs, die sein Vater hier aufgenommen hat, klingen vielversprechend.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This is unbelievably sad…not the music but the reason. It sounds really good of course.
    I’m glad they patched things up somewhat by the end. Great post Christian.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve is one of my top guys (He’s so fricken hard to keep up with. Prolific is his middle name). He just pumps out quality music. His way of dealing with the loss of his boy. Can you imagine the pain, regret, love etc. “Ilove you too”. brings tears to my eyes. The pandemic no ones to talk about. Good stuff Christian.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Just what I listened to on your post. Earle is so underrated in my opinion. I get that his music wouldnt have the mass appeal but he has something special going on.
        The way he’s dealing with his loss is something else. Gives the songs an extra feel for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Didn’t know about his kid. Tremendously painful thing to contemplate. I’m not a big Earle fan but he was on one of the late-night shows just the other night, I guess behind this album. Band sounded good.

    Liked by 1 person

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