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The album Steve Earle never wanted to make: A tribute to his son
Steve Earle in New York, Dec. 10, 2020. Less than two months after Justin Townes Earle’s death from an accidental overdose, his father entered Electric Lady Studios to record an LP’s worth of his songs. Meghan Marin/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On the evening of Aug. 20, Steve Earle spoke to his son Justin Townes Earle for the last time.

In a phone call initiated by Earle's son, they caught up on family business, and Earle, the country-rock singer-songwriter who struggled with addiction for years, told his son — a lauded musician in his own right — that he would support him if he was ready to begin his own recovery.

“I said, ‘Do not make me bury you,’” the elder Earle recalled in an interview. “And he said, ‘I won’t.’”

That night, Justin Townes Earle, 38, died alone in an apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, of an accidental drug overdose; an autopsy found evidence in his blood of cocaine laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid. For Steve Earle, the death of his eldest son set off waves of grief. He had watched Justin Townes Earle grow from a scraggly teenage hip-hop fan intrigued by Kurt Cobain to a rising star of Americana music — the fuzzy intersection in the Venn diagram of folk, country and rock, where Earle has long been a looming presence.

Justin Townes Earle, who released eight albums and an EP over 13 years, had a mordant songwriting style that bore the influence of Townes Van Zandt, the fatalistic folk oracle who was Steve Earle’s mentor and the man he named his son after. It also had the unmistakable imprint of Earle himself, whose best songs, whether performed in loud bands or alone with an acoustic guitar, have always had a certain rock ’n’ roll sneer.

Justin Townes Earle, like his father, also spent years as an addict, using heroin since his teens. Alcoholism plagued him throughout his career and took a hard toll in his later years. Justin Townes Earle was hospitalized with pneumonia over the summer, having aspirated vomit in his lungs, and was told by a doctor that he would die if he did not quit drinking, Steve Earle said.

But while Steve Earle eventually got clean — after spending time in prison in 1994 on drug and weapons charges — his son succumbed to the disease. Among Justin Townes Earle’s survivors are his wife, Jennifer, and a 3-year-old daughter, Etta St. James Earle.

“I’ve never loved anything in this world more than him,” Steve Earle said. “I was connected to him in ways that, you know — he’s my first born; he did the same thing I did; and we both had this disease.”

Within days of Justin Townes Earle’s death, Steve Earle, 65, began work on what would become “J.T.,” an album of 10 of his son’s songs, and one new track by Earle, that will be released Jan. 4, which would have been his son’s 39th birthday. Proceeds from the LP will go to a trust to benefit Etta.

“His best songs were as good as anybody’s,” said Earle, whose Greenwich Village apartment is crammed with photos of Justin Townes Earle, including one black-and-white shot on the wall showing his 3-year-old son chomping on a candy apple. “He was a way better singer than I am, a way better guitar player, technically, than I am. His fingerpicking could be mind-blowing. He was just one of those people that never felt like he was enough.”

“J.T.” — Justin Townes Earle’s childhood nickname — is the latest entry in what has become a grim specialty for Earle: the tribute album for a departed musical confidant. “Townes” was released in 2009, a dozen years after Van Zandt died; “Guy,” an homage to songwriter Guy Clark, came out three years after Clark’s death in 2016. But “J.T.” was made while Earle’s pain was still raw. During recording sessions in October, the official cause of his son’s death had still not been determined.

Recorded with the Dukes, Earle’s longtime backing band — including Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel guitar, Jeff Hill on bass and Brad Pemberton on drums — “J.T.” includes some of Justin Townes Earle’s best-known songs, like “Harlem River Blues,” “Champagne Corolla” and “The Saint of Lost Causes,” the title track of his final album, released in 2019.

Earle’s craggy-voiced performance underscores dark themes that were there all along. “Harlem River Blues” contemplates a drowning death. (“Tell my mama I love her / tell my father I tried,” it goes. “Give my money to my baby to spend.”) “Turn Out My Lights,” about the phantom-limb ache for a former lover, takes on an eerie double meaning when Earle sings:

Even though I know you’re goneI don’t have to be alone nowYou’re here with me every nightWhen I turn out my lights

Recording the album “wasn’t cathartic as much as it was therapeutic,” Earle said. “I made the record because I needed to.”

“J.T.” is, in a sense, a double portrait of father and son. Justin Townes Earle was born in 1982, while his father was a journeyman songwriter in Nashville. He and Justin Townes Earle’s mother, Carol Ann Hunter, split up when Justin was 3, around the time that his father's recording career began to take off. For much of Justin Townes Earle’s youth, his father was touring or lost in the depths of drug addiction.

By Justin Townes Earle’s teenage years — once his father was clean and out of prison — he was living with his father, and they developed a close musical bond. Earle recalled a pivotal moment when his son, still a guitar novice, was stunned by Cobain’s stark acoustic performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” with Nirvana on “MTV Unplugged,” unaware of the song’s provenance from the folk icon Leadbelly. Earle pointed his son to the L section of his record collection, where Leadbelly abutted the bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.

“Next thing I knew,” Earle said, “he was playing Mance songs that I had never been able to figure out.”

Justin Townes Earle played in two bands, the Swindlers and the Distributors, before going solo in his 20s. In 2007, his debut EP, “Yuma,” introduced him as a stylish traditionalist with a hint of punk rock attitude. Within a few years, he was building a reputation in New York, appearing frequently (as performer or patron) at a bar near his East Village apartment.




He developed an irresistible persona for the media, dressing in retro suits and hats, blithely recounting his struggle with drugs while reveling in the notoriety it brought. “There’s really no such thing as bad press,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2010.

Shooter Jennings, the country rock singer — and son of outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings — recalled Justin Townes Earle during this period as an almost intimidating talent, albeit one who still lived under the shadow of a famous father.

“When you get out there, there’s going to be this built-in audience of people that are curious to see what Steve Earle’s son is like, or what Waylon Jennings’ son is like,” Jennings said. “So there’s this bit of distrust with the audience from the very beginning. Are they here because they like my music, or are they here because they like my dad’s music?”

To record “J.T.,” Earle, with the help of his son Ian, 33, winnowed Justin Townes Earle’s work to a list of 10 songs — two of them, “Turn Out My Lights” and “Far Away in Another Town,” Justin Townes Earle wrote with Scotty Melton — and booked a week at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

He worked fast, sending his band preparatory notes by text message. By the time they began recording, his son had been dead for less than two months. (They began sessions before Oct. 20.) Earle, who had largely avoided speaking publicly about his son’s death, wanted the album to be his statement.

He was also wary of being roped into anyone else’s memorial.

“I did not want to be asked to be on a tribute record with several people that I thought absolutely were enablers and helped kill him,” Earle said, his words flecked with expletives. “So I thought the way to nip that in the bud was to make a record of my own.”

At this point in his career, Earle — bespectacled, with a long salt-and-pepper beard — is a Renaissance man for whom mortality and addiction have been perennial subject matter. In addition to his many albums, Earle has written a play about a woman on death row and a novel about the specter of Hank Williams and contributed music to a recent play about a mining disaster in West Virginia. Lately he has been writing a science-fiction story intended for television.

The night before the first session for “J.T.,” Earle gathered the band at his apartment for a sushi meal. Ray Kennedy, Earle’s longtime engineer, recalls the time in Electric Lady as being celebratory but focused. They began each day at 10 a.m. and finished by 4 p.m. so that Earle could take care of his youngest son, John Henry, 10, who has autism.

“It felt positive,” Kennedy said. “It felt like we were taking an expression of somebody’s art and creativity and giving it back to the world in a different package.”

Earle, slouching on his sofa with a green bandanna as a face mask, seemed almost bemused by the question of whether recording his dead son’s songs was difficult to get through.

“I inoculated myself to some degree,” he said. “I was prepared for it to be horrific. But the truth is, it was kind of business as usual in a lot of ways.”

Justin Townes Earle’s catalog, with its frequent themes of the entanglements and disappointments of family, might seem a minefield for Earle. He did not record anything from his son’s albums “Absent Fathers” or “Single Mothers.” He also avoided one of his son’s best-known songs, “Mama’s Eyes,” which begins, “I am my father’s son / I’ve never known when to shut up.”

Those songs, Earle said, simply didn’t hold up as well as others he chose, which showcase his son’s economical storytelling voice. The choices also contrast the two men’s styles. “J.T.” opens with “I Don’t Care,” a jaunty, fingerpicked ditty from “Yuma.” The Dukes play it as a rollicking hootenanny, with Earle growling its sardonic twist on a folk cliché: “I don’t know where I’m going no more / I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

Other songs reveal an interplay between the two men and their music. Justin Townes Earle’s “Lone Pine Hill,” a Civil War ballad with a Townes Van Zandt-style guitar part, Steve Earle sees as indebted to his “Ben McCulloch,” about a disillusioned Confederate soldier. For two of Justin Townes Earle’s earliest tunes, “Maria” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” Kennedy dug out tapes of Justin Townes Earle’s original arrangements with the Swindlers, which he and Steve Earle recorded in 2001, when Justin Townes Earle was 19.

Steve Earle said that in writing “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man,” from his most recent album, “Ghosts of West Virginia” (2020), he “deliberately emulated” his son’s guitar part on his song “They Killed John Henry.”

“It always made me incredibly jealous that Justin had a John Henry song and I didn’t,” he said.

The song that was the most painful to record is also the album’s most powerful: “Last Words,” a heartbreaking synopsis of a father’s journey, from holding his newborn son to speaking to him for the last time. Earle wrote it less than a week after Justin Townes Earle died, and he described it as “maybe the only song I’ve ever written in my life that every single word in it is true.”

“Last thing I said was, ‘I love you,’” Earle sings, over acoustic guitar and ominous, droning feedback. “Your last words to me were, ‘I love you too.’”

© 2021 The New York Times Company










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