In a better world, this album wouldn’t exist, at least not in the context that yielded it. Justin Townes Earle would have found a way to hold on a little longer, or—even better—would have lived in a society that doesn’t stigmatize people who struggle with substance abuse, where he might have found a deeper well of compassion, along with ongoing treatment for the addiction issues that stalked him for most of his life. Tragically, that’s not how it went. Earle died on Aug. 20, 2020, of an accidental overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine. He was 38. His death was a crushing loss for his friends and fans, to say nothing of his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and his heartbroken father.
Earle’s father, of course, is the longtime alt-country rabble-rouser Steve Earle, who has been frank about navigating addiction issues of his own. Steve Earle channeled the grief of losing his eldest child into music, recording 10 of his son’s songs and writing one of his own for J.T. “For better or worse, right or wrong, I loved Justin Townes Earle more than anything else on this earth,” the elder Earle wrote 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.” (It’s also a way for Earle to support his granddaughter: Royalties will go to a trust for Etta St. James Earle.)
J.T. is a loving, wrenching tribute. Steve Earle selected songs from six of his son’s eight full-length albums, and one from his first EP. They’re not note-for-note covers, but interpretations, and Earle and the current incarnation of his longtime band The Dukes inhabit the songs without trying to recreate the originals. That’s how it should be: Though the elder Earle’s catalog is twice as deep as his son’s, Justin Townes Earle had long since shown that he could be his father’s equal as a writer, on songs full of rich emotion and incisive detail.
“Champagne Corolla” has both, and is one of the standouts here. The Dukes turn the song into a brisk shuffle accented with sleek, intertwining guitars, and Steve Earle’s earthy twang sounds uncommonly like his son’s more supple voice—it’s the closest vocal resemblance on J.T. The Dukes amp up “Maria” with growling electric guitar and gleaming pedal steel, and the more robust arrangement turns the wistful and resigned sensibility of JTE’s version on its head by making it sound like maybe Maria is the one missing out after directing her affections elsewhere.
Steve Earle and The Dukes wrap up the selection of JTE tunes with “Harlem River Blues,” a song about drowning oneself in the dirty water at the northern end of Manhattan. Given the subject matter, putting the song toward the end of the album makes sense, though it imparts a grueling sense of finality enhanced by The Dukes’ arrangement. Justin Townes Earle’s version was sexy and deceptively upbeat, with crisp drums and stinging electric guitar fills giving the song a mordant, jaunty feel. The Dukes go with a rootsier take, where fiddle replaces the humming organ of the original and pedal steel adds a melancholic touch that underscores the enormity of the loss Steve Earle is mourning.
That sense of loss is understandably more stark on “Last Words,” the closing song, and the one Steve Earle wrote. Over spare, hard-strummed acoustic guitar, he sings in his gruff drawl about holding his newborn son, and the heartache he feels at having ultimately been powerless to protect that little boy as JTE grew into a man with a hurt that wouldn’t heal. The musical arrangement builds through the song to the last chorus, which lands with the emotional impact of a wracking sob: “Last thing I said was I love you / Your last words to me were I love you too.” In the end, for all they may have left unsaid to each other, father and son managed to communicate what matters most. That counts for something, even if it’s scant comfort for now.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.