Steve Earle pays tribute to his late son, Justin, on a very emotive album
You’d need a heart of stone not to be touched by Steve Earle’s latest “tribute” album. Previously he has released ‘Townes’ and then ‘Guy’. Those albums were named for their subjects and ‘J.T.’ follows suit as that was what most folk who know Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, called him. His death earlier this year, attributed to an accidental drug overdose with fentanyl-laced cocaine, was a shock, a supreme tragedy in a year of tragedies given that Earle Jr. was in his prime. His father’s decision to record an album of his songs so soon after his death is partly explained by the fact that all proceeds from sales will go to a trust fund set up for Justin’s daughter. Earle, says, “I loved Justin Townes Earle more than anything else on this earth. That being said, I made this record, like every other record I’ve ever made . . . for me. It was the only way I knew to say goodbye.”
Recorded with the current line up of The Dukes, ‘J.T.’ has a similar heft to Earle’s last album, ‘Ghosts Of West Virginia’, with the band well able to squirrel around bluegrass, hard driving folk and some muscular rock. Justin’s songs fit well into the blueprint although Earle packs more of a punch, especially in the vocal department and the songs are more rough-hewn than the originals. However comparisons, especially here, would be odious. Suffice to say that the selection of songs, tallied from Justin’s debut EP up until his last album, ‘The Saint Of Lost Causes’, allow his song writing to shine while dad does all of them more than justice. In fact, it’s not stretching things too much to say that this is Earle’s best album in quite a while.
The album opens with ‘I Don’t Care’ which recalls Earle’s “comeback” album, ‘Train A Comin’’, with its frantic bluegrass drive, as does the spectacular ‘They Killed John Henry’. Still leaning on the acoustic side of things ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’’ is a fine old time front porch knees up while ‘Turn Out My Lights’ and ‘Lone Pine Hill’ sound just as if the originals were turned up a few notches on the amp. There’s the great low riding rock’n’roll rumble of ‘Champagne Corolla’ and ‘Harlem River Blues’ is allowed a big production sound with the band tearing through it while retaining some of its gospel leanings.
There are ten Justin Townes Earle songs here and all of them sound quite magnificent. Steve Earle adopts them with a loving touch as if they were as much Justin’s offspring as his daughter. He closes the album with a song written for Justin, ‘Last Words’. Earle spoke to Justin on the night he died and his grief just pours out here as he recounts their last phone call. As the band rumble ominously in the background, a gravid voiced Earle offers his elegy to his departed son on a most powerful and affecting song. As we said at the beginning, it would take a heard heart not to be touched by this.