AUK’s Chain Gang: Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues”

My colleague Harold Hogan opened up a whole world of possibilities with the previous link in this chain. Initially I thought of others who had covered ‘Dead Flowers‘ leading me to Jerry Lee Lewis’ brilliant cover of the Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia‘. But I couldn’t resist the link through the classic ‘Heartworn Highways‘ documentary that focussed on this new generation of country outlaws.

Firstly, I thought about Guy Clark’s ‘My Favourite Picture of You‘ about the photo taken of his wife Susanna whilst she was mightily upset by Van Zandt and Clark being incoherently drunk again. (I’d interviewed Clark when it came out and managed to annoy him by suggesting he was better known for writing songs than singing them. One of those times I was glad I was separated by a transatlantic phone line preventing him reaching out and grabbing me by the throat! He was a big chap.)

But finally I settled on the Steve Earle connection, as he makes an appearance as a young man in ‘Heartworn Highways‘ and also covered ‘Dead Flowers‘ on his live album ‘Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator‘, a much derided album, recorded when he was in the throes of addiction, which I’ve always actually had a soft spot for. But I decided to skip a generation further by connecting to Steve’s son, Justin Townes Earle. I feel there’s a poignant link between Van Zandt and Justin: both fabulously talented and killed by their addictions. (And Steve could so easily have joined them.)

There is, of course, the further links that Justin was named after his father’s friend and hero and Steve Earle has now recorded musical tributes to both Townes and Justin. (And Guy.)

Doing some YouTube research to select the best version to post below – I settled on the album version – it became painfully clear from watching concert footage that Earle had been spiralling back into his addictions for a couple of years before his death. A long, slow and inevitable decline.

But if there was ever an upbeat and joyful song about ending it all than it is ‘Harlem River Blues‘.

What could have been yet to come…

About Peter Tomkins 33 Articles
What brought me here? The Mekons, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Weddings Parties Anything, Blyth Power, Husker Du, Johnny Cash, Uncle Tupelo, Old 97s, Jerry Lee Lewis, Son Volt, Steve Earle, Bill Monroe, Sarah Shook, and on and on.
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Great choice! I’m a big fan of the Earles (including Stacey) and saw Jnr at the Deaf Institute in Manchester some years ago. I do hope it’s the Steve live album you have a soft spot for rather than addiction!!