Recording JT had to be the hardest thing Steve Earle has ever done. The album was released January 4 on what would have been his son, Justin Townes Earle’s, 39th birthday. Justin died from an overdose on August 20, 2020. JT is an album of 10 of Justin’s songs that Earle chose with the help of his son, Ian. It closes with a song written by Steve for Justin, titled “Last Words.”
Steve told the New York Times that the album was more therapeutic than cathartic for him because “I made the record because I needed to.” Steve performed two of the songs, “Harlem River Blues” and “Far Away In Another Town” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on January 7, prompting fans of Justin to praise his performance, with one fan commenting, “Thank you Steve Earle. You did (“Far Away In Another Town”) almost as nice as your son.” Steve must have considered that an ultimate compliment.
In the liner notes on the album, Steve writes about Justin and his music, and how even as a youngster to the music business, he was playing better than his father. “He’d only been interested in electric guitar until seeing Kurt Cobain hunched over the big Martin acoustic (playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) on ‘MTV Unplugged,’ so I pointed him towards the original recorded version (of the song) in my record collection. 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!”
Steve took Justin with him when he was just 17 to Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago with the idea that he would take a few classes there. “…Within a few weeks he was teaching fingerstyle guitar,” Steve the proud father proclaims.
The album is an overview of Justin’s career from beginning to end, with most of the tunes coming from his second album in 2008, The Good Life. The first track is a rocking bluegrass number, “I Don’t Care,” from Justin’s debut album, Yuma, followed by the bluesy “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” from 2008. Steve gets into “Maria” from the 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now for the third track, a tune about a lost love that he still loves, then goes back to 2008 with “Far Away In Another Town.”
The fifth track, “They Killed John Henry,” is one Steve says he was jealous of because Justin wrote a John Henry song before he did. He picked it from The Good Life album. “Lone Pine Hill,” the seventh track, is a cool song about coal miners back in the beginning of the trade, from the 2008 album.
“Champagne Corolla” is a fun up-tempo tune from the 2017 Kids In The Street album, and “The Saint of Los Causes” is from Justin’s eighth and final release, 2019’s album by the same name. “Harlem River Blues” comes from his third album by the same name, released in 2010. Steve’s band The Dukes played on the recording, which was produced by Ray Kennedy at Electric Lady Studios in New York City.
The last tune on the album was written by Steve for Justin, and he says it is the only song he has ever written where every word in it is true. He wrote the very intimate song just weeks after Justin’s death, recalling the first time he saw his son when he was born and the last conversation they had on the day Justin died. The COVID-19 pandemic had given the two the opportunity to talk more often than if they had been on their regular schedule of traveling the highway in opposite directions. Steve recalls, “We spoke often those last few months, saw each other a handful of times and I talked to him the night he died. I am grateful for that.”
Ironically, Justin died just a little over a mile from where he came into this world at Baptist Hospital in Nashville. Steve recalls watching him take his first breath, and how he didn’t really want to let the nurse put him in the nursery. “My arms had never felt so empty (after the nurse took him away),” he recalls in the liner notes.
Steve captures the essence of Justin’s music in every note, and his love for his son is evident as he winds through the songs he chose for the album.
“I loved Justin Townes Earle more than anything else on this earth,” Steve says in the liner notes. “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.”
Proceeds from the album will go into a trust fund for Justin’s three-year-old daughter, Etta St. James Earle.
The January 4 release of JT was on digital only. CDs and Vinyl editions will be released on March 19. The vinyl will be offered in multiple colors, including yellow, green, pink and aqua blue.
Track listing for JT:
I Don’t Care
Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving
Far Away In Another Town
They Killed John Henry
Turn Out My Lights
Lone Pine Hill
The Saint of Lost Causes
Harlem River Blues
(All songs written by Justin Townes Earle except “Turn Out My Lights” and “Far Away In Another Town,” Justin Townes Earle and Scotty Melon; and “Last Words,” written By Steve Earle)
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Author Of this post: Vernell Hackett