Stories are told about a lanky, mercurial country blues man from Nashville whose songs made the music world swoon and whose self-destructive behavior sent his friends and colleagues reeling between protective love and resigned exasperation. This man was a doomed genius, somebody we listened to more closely for fear he’d soon be gone. This man was Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt and Justin Townes Earle, three generations of honored ghosts.
None of them got out of this world alive, Earle most recently. His death on August 20 at 38 years old in the grim reaper year of 2020 tore a hole in Nashville and indie music generally. The songwriter had become his community’s prodigal son, a neighbor with a national profile, an understated style icon and a holdfast for a lot of people’s hopes. On his passing, associates remembered a “great gentle light,” a “magnetic” persona and “a man out of time.” Many were shocked, yet most were not surprised. Justin’s battles with addiction were well-known, because he addressed them in public and he’d thrived during some long stretches of sobriety. He had a wife and daughter to live for. But close friends disclosed in their sorrow that his self-care was erratic, and he seemed unable to accept the help that might have saved his life.
Six months later, on what would have been Justin’s 39th birthday, Earle’s famous and famously complicated father Steve Earle has released a tribute album to his son, featuring ten of Justin’s songs and one new original. J.T. completes a lonesome triptych of albums Steve’s made in the past 12 years covering songs by his fallen friends and personal heroes, including Townes for Justin’s namesake Townes Van Zandt and 2019’s album of Guy Clark songs. They’re all affirmations of the immortality of great songs, the mortality of their authors and the web of connections and influences that sustain the larger creative community.
Steve had a mixed record as a father but he did gift his son music, and he was there when Justin inadvertently discovered the blues on his own. The teenager latched on to Kurt Cobain’s MTV Unplugged performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” an almost violently haunted interpretation of its ex-convict originator Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. “He’d only been interested in electric guitar until seeing Cobain hunched over the big Martin acoustic on MTV Unplugged so I pointed him towards the original recorded version in my record collection,” Steve wrote in a statement released by the album’s label New West Records. “Leadbelly was next to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lightnin’ next to Mance Lipscomb and next thing I knew he was playing stuff I’d been trying to sort out for years.” This epiphany primed the stove for the unique, trembling, inhabited quality of Justin’s ferocious fingerstyle guitar and his emotive singing.
On J.T., Steve seems particularly in tune with Justin’s earliest work as a solo artist, kicking off with “I Don’t Care” from his first EP, transforming a solo fingerstyle rambler/gambler tune into a rollicking country number. Then “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” offers one of four songs from 2008’s The Good Life, his first solo album. These establish themes of rootlessness, departures and absence that can be heard as declarations of freedom or repentance for being gone for significant stretches of Justin’s life. The album starts to truly merge mood and repertoire on just such a song, “Far Away In Another Town,” where the band finds the perfect tempo and mood to let the timeless lyrics sink in: “So the next time you come lookin’ no I won’t be around./ Cause I think I can be lonesome faraway in another town.” With a droning organ and melancholy mandolin, this fourth track is one of the more emotionally exposed in the collection and the opening of a particularly strong middle stretch.
Steve Earle told the New York Times that when he wrote “John Henry Was A Steel Drivin’ Man” for his hard-hitting 2020 release Ghosts of West Virginia, he did so with inspiration from and a bit of envy over Justin’s “They Killed John Henry,” written years before for the Midnight Movies album and recorded here with Steve’s band The Dukes and producer/engineer Ray Kennedy. Listening to both masters, father and son, grapple in their own language with the archetypal American folk story is a bit like watching great actors inhabit Hamlet. Not many are equal to the task, but Steve’s in his folk-rock wheelhouse on this energetic cover. Another intergenerational synergy flows from “Lone Pine Hill,” a Civil War power ballad that recalls Steve’s amazing “Ben McCulloch” from 1995’s acoustic classic Train A Comin’.
But for all this, the emotional sentinels of the album are the Good Life cover “Turn Out My Lights” and the final track by Steve called “Last Words.” The former can be uncannily read from the point of view of both musicians. “Even though I know you're gone/ I don't have to be alone now/ You're here with me every night/ When I turn out my lights,” Steve sings in a forlorn rasp. Is this Justin the boy missing his rambling father or Steve the man missing his son? If that doesn’t get stuck in your throat, “Last Words” certainly will. Over a solemn droning structure, Steve remembers the arc of Justin’s life, from holding him as a newborn through their estrangements and re-connections, to their final phone call, which transpired just hours before Justin would die, seemingly accidentally, from an overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine. The refrain recounts their final exchanges of “I love you.” Earle said in that Times interview that it’s “maybe the only song I’ve ever written in my life that every single word in it is true.”
Steve, for all of his muscular lyrical brilliance, never had the nuanced, expressive lyrical flow of Justin, who was an outstanding blues and country singer. And some of the stoicism it took to complete the sessions last October translates into a masculine detachment that might have come out mellower with time. But these songs offer an invitation deep into Justin’s discography, rewarding side-by-side comparisons. And at the end of the day, it’s an extravagantly human and vulnerable act. Has there ever been another album of a father singing his son’s songs within months of his tragic death? Usually such generational tributes flow in reverse. They say no parent should ever have to bury their child. But if it had to happen, this is a beautiful and brave way to handle it.