2020 was a time of tremendous loss, and before we finish sending last year on its way to wherever it is that bad years go, we have one last chance to say goodbye to Justin Townes Earle. A few months after Earle died last summer, his father announced an album of his son’s songs, with proceeds to benefit Justin’s three-year-old daughter. Steve Earle and the Dukes’ J.T. is a collection of some of Justin’s best work, perfectly played by Steve and his deeply talented band.
Steve Earle has made himself a nice side career of tribute albums to his late heroes, namely Townes Van Zandt (2009’s Townes) and Guy Clark (2019’s GUY). I’d wager that Earle would’ve been happy never to have to record one of these elegies again, let alone for his 38-year-old son. But Justin’s songs and legacy are worthy of Steve’s effort and our ears. Both father and son lived an itinerant lifestyle, not only as a function of their chosen profession but seemingly as a part of their souls. The lead track, “I Don’t Care,” is a tribute to that restlessness. And, whether it’s Justin’s spare original or Steve’s full band, bluegrass-y take, that wanderlust is the same – “Anywhere but here, anywhere at all, I’m just looking for a change.”
“Far Away in Another Town,” one of many more songs about leaving, finds the elder Earle funneling his son’s past-last-call loneliness through a country band, featuring gorgeous mandolin and pedal steel. But this is the track where the Earles’ voices most closely – and hauntingly – echo each other. There’s a lot of both men’s personalities in a line like “I think I can be lonesome far away in another town.”
There are some rockers on J.T. “Maria” replaces the horns of Justin’s New York Americana sound with lots of steel and slurry vocals from Dad. “Champagne Corolla” is fun on both records, as well as an honest stab at making practicality (and Toyotas) sexy – “But you can’t trust a rich girl no farther than you can throw her/Need a middle class queen driving a champagne Corolla.”
The standout on J.T. is Dad’s take on “The Saint of Lost Causes.” Both versions are spoken almost as much as sung, but Steve dials up in menace in his son’s self-aware tune of desperation giving way to accidental malevolence – “Throughout time/Between a wolf and a shepherd/Who you think has killed more sheep?” The Dukes throw in a grimey guitar vs. fiddle trade-off before Earle comes in with a ragged harmonica solo, matching the jagged edge in his voice.
The tribute portion of the record closes with a faithful take on perhaps Justin’s most well-known tune, “Harlem River Blues,” maybe the jauntiest suicide song you’ll ever hear – both versions even include a vocal chorus at the end (if you have a chance, YouTube the clip of Justin performing this in 2011 on the old Letterman show, featuring none other than Jason Isbell on guitar). Then Steve Earle completes the album with a song of his own, “Last Words,” in which Dad flashes back to his son’s first moments on Earth while wishing he could have played the role of protector one more time – “I wish I could have held you when/You left this world like I did then.” Earle called it “the only way I could figure out how to say goodbye,” and it’s a song from a man who can’t yet understand, and hasn’t made peace with, what happened to his son. Like much of the album, it’s rough-edged and unsettled, and that’s its sad beauty.
J.T. was produced by Steve Earle and recorded, mixed and mastered by Ray Kennedy. The Dukes include Chris Masterson (guitar, mandolin, piano and vocal), Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, mandolin, organ and vocal), Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel guitar, Dobro and vocal), Jeff Hill (acoustic and electric bass, cello and vocal) and Brad Pemberton (drums, percussion and vocal).
Go here to order J.T., available digitally on January 4 and on vinyl and CD March 19: https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/steve-earle-the-dukes-j-t