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

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Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

As another eventful week is drawing to a close, the time has come again to venture into the world of newly released music. This latest Best of What’s New installment features great power pop, indie pop rock and art pop from the U.S. and rock from the U.K.

While two of these acts are well established and have been around for many years, all are new to me. Broadening my music universe by “discovering” artists and bands is a key reason why I enjoy writing the series. All of the featured songs were just released yesterday. Let’s get going!

Matthew Sweet/Stars Explode

Matthew Sweet is a singer-songwriter who played in various bands during the ’80s and was part of the vibrant local music scene in Athens, Ga., before gaining traction as a solo artist in the ’90s. According to his profile on Apple Music, he skillfully navigates the line between the power pop underground and the mainstream end of alternative rock. Matthew Sweet was a master of potent pop tunes and catchy melodic hooks, but he also knew how to make his songs rock, and his inspired use of incisive guitar work gave his songs an edge that was fresh and satisfying. Sweet spent most of the ’80s in the background, performing with the groups Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight, playing in Lloyd Cole’s backing band, and releasing a pair of overlooked solo albums (1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth) as he honed his skills. His this solo album Girlfriend from October 1991 brought him commercial breakthrough. Between 2006 and 2013, Sweet collaborated on a series of cover albums (Under the Covers Vol. 1 – Vol. 3) with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles. Stars Explode, written by Sweet, is from his 15th studio album Catspaw. It illustrates he hasn’t lost his ability to write catchy power pop tunes that nicely rock. Sounds like Sweet is right up my alley, so I’m planning to further explore his music.

Beach Bunny/Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)

Beach Bunny are an indie pop rock band formed in Chicago in 2015. The group started as a solo project by vocalist and guitarist Lili Trifilio who released her debut EP Animalism in 2015. Following the third EP Crybaby in 2017, Beach Bunny became a full-fledged four-piece group. In addition to Trifilio (vocals, guitar), their current lineup features Matt Henkels (guitar), Anthony Vaccaro (bass) and Jon Alvarado (drums). Beach Bunny’s first full-length studio album Honeymoon appeared in February 2020. Good Girls (Don’t Get Used) is the opener of the group’s latest EP Blame Game. Like the three other tracks on the EP, the song is credited to Lili Trifilio and Beach Bunny. The catchy track reminds me a bit of some early Taylor Swift tunes I’ve heard.

You Me At Six/Beautiful Way

You Me At Six are an English rock band formed in 2004 in the greater London area. Apple Music notes post-hardcore and alt-rock influences in their music. I don’t know the band and take this at face value. After two self-released EPs in 2006 and 2007, their debut album Take Off Your Colours came out in October 2008. It peaked at no. 25 on the British albums chart and yielded two UK award nominations. Their fourth album Cavalier Youth from January 2014 topped the UK and Scottish albums charts and also made the Billboard 200, reaching no. 124. The band’s current core lineup consists of co-founding members Josh Franceschi (lead vocals), Chris Miller (lead guitar), Max Helyer (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Matthew Barnes (bass, backing vocals), as well as Daniel Flint (drums) who has been with the group since 2007. Beautiful Way, credited to all members of the band, is from You Me At Six’s seventh studio album Suckapunch. The track’s guitar part drew me in – it definitely has something!

Midnight Sister/Foxes

Rounding out today’s new music collection is the duo of Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian, professionally known as Midnight Sister. A profile on Apple Music describes their style as art pop with a cinematic flair…Both natives of the San Fernando Valley [Calif.] and graduates of the same high school a few years apart, they met when Balouzian, a classically trained musician, wrote the score for a short film scripted by Giraffe and her sister, a friend of Balouzian’s. When he followed up by sending some instrumental music to Giraffe, and she returned it with vocals, they liked the results and decided to keep working together. Midnight Sister was Balouzian’s first pop project aside from doing arrangements for Tobias Jesso, Jr. and Alex Izenberg, and Giraffe’s first musical endeavor. Their full-length debut album Saturn Over Sunset appeared in 2017. Foxes is a track from their sophomore release Painting the Roses. It’s an intriguing tune with portions that sound Beatle-esque.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube