…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.
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