The painfully tragic passing of Justin Townes Earle in August last year due to an accidental drugs overdose brought the sad realisation that that was it for any new material from the mercurial JTE. We would have to be satisfied with the canon left behind and wonder forever more what could have been. But within that canon exists a classic Americana album, the one that launched his talent into the majors: ‘Harlem River Blues’.
For anyone just starting out on an americana adventure, searching for the components that define the genre, this album will certainly go a long way in helping. Blues, rockabilly, country, even gospel, ‘HRB’ is packed with roots music from beginning to end. Twangy guitars, pedal steel, organs, fiddle, harmonica, Memphis-style horns, as well as more than gentle nods of influence to some grandstanding names including Dylan, Cash, Springsteen and Cooder, this album encapsulates all that is great about americana.
Released in September 2010 on Bloodshot Records (but of course), this was JTE’s third full studio album with 11 tracks all written or co-written by him. The title track, also reprised to close, won the AMA Song of the Year for 2010, recognition of his ascendency into the more rarefied atmosphere of songwriting. There are foot tappin’, thigh slappin’ numbers, story tellin’ blues numbers, and although there are songs referencing possible fraught familial relationships and even drowning, this album is still somehow uplifting.
There is a breadth to this record musically and lyrically which, coupled with the almost live production, that makes it so listenable. Musicians that played on the album include Jason Isbell and Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, who has played with other americana luminaries such as Calexico, Lambchop and Iron and Wine.
Last July – not long before he passed away – I wrote a piece about JTE, which ended as follows: ”Clearly, there is more to come, more records, more tours once this dreadful pandemic is over. And more social commentary, in that unique JTE americana style, no doubt.” Sadly, this isn’t to be any more. But we will always have ‘Harlem River Blues’.