“A Celebration Of Justin Townes Earle” – by Tim Easton with photos by Martha King
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville Tennessee
by T. Easton
Featuring Steve Earle & The Dukes and special guests: Shooter Jennings, Bonnie Whitmore, Amanda Shires, Willy and Cody Braun, Buddy Miller, Ben Nichols (Lucero), Dustin Welch, Elizabeth Cook, Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Joe Pug, Jon Langford, Lilly Hiatt, Scotty Melton, Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart
After two postponements, the tribute show to Justin Townes Earle (and benefit for his daughter) took place on what would have been JTE’s 41st birthday. His father Steve Earle curated and MC’d the show, starting out with a story of him waiting at the Goldrush Bar 41 years ago this very night— down the street from Vanderbilt Hospital where his first son was being born. This tribute show was a night to honor a great songwriter and friend, and was also a night of heartbreak just knowing that one of the modern generation’s best songwriters life was cut short. We were all part of his family on this night of sonic memories, but his actual blood relatives were right on stage leading the charge.
An avalanche of talent got up to play Justin’s songs and tell stories. One after the other, Justin’s friends and mentors arrived and performed with the steady backing of The Dukes, who did a magnificent job with the material. As a songwriting and roots music fan, the show was a delight from start to finish. As a father and friend to those in recovery, it was also an emotionally charged journey. I kept looking at the stage through the lens of those who are on a stable path, and then of those who are living closer to the edge.
First up was Justin’s uncle and aunt, Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, playing as a duo with no backing band. The heaviness of real family was dropped on us all, as I have also lost a beloved nephew to drugs and alcohol. They performed with such familiar confidence, which helped us all relax a little and even smile. It began to dawn on me that I was about to witness person after person who I had worked with in their past or perhaps celebrated a little late with into the night at one time or another.
I cannot call Justin a friend that I knew well, but we were acquaintances after he showed up to Club Roar Recording Studio in 2010 when I was in Nashville making my Beat The Band album. I played shows with him on the road from Kentucky to Texas and once we had a three night run at a casino in Green Bay Wisconsin with him and The Sadies. I recall asking him about some of his deft Travis picking rolls that I had not quite mastered and him mentioning Mance Lipscomb and quickly turning the conversation over to fishing.
Whatever he would talk about, I remember him doing it with stubborn authority, much like the time when I once shared a meal with his Dad. Lightning Hopkins, baseball, and The Civil War were favorite subjects for both of them, and you would get an earful. Those memories kept me smiling as the performers quickly rolled through the show at a breakneck pace. One thing any listener will notice about Justin’s songs is that they carry a lot of content. Thoughtfully written words of despair, solitude, and a touch of salvation. JTE expressed self-realization and circular storytelling all in one bundle, like the greats often do. He was lucky to have great mentors throughout his life, some positive, some negative.
Buddy Miller harnessed the evening with his recounting of the very young JTE trying to learn the intro to “Stairway To Heaven” while Steve’s band was rehearsing another song in another key in order for Steve to debut on the Grand Ol’ Opry. After rightfully applauding The Dukes, Buddy launched into a stripped down and stellar version of “Lone Pine Hill,” with a lyrical depth that brought history and heartbreak to the forefront again. It was my favorite musical moment of the night.
Each of the performers had plenty of stories to tell about Justin Townes. My only wish is that they would have offered even more of those stories to the audience. I am also aware of the idea that the very act of getting through a story and a song would be difficult and potentially painful for the storyteller after having lost a good friend and family member.
His father did a stellar job at keeping the proceedings rolling right along. He is a natural born storyteller, of course, and I loved the way he connected all of the performers and artists to JTE’s life. It was only later while talking to Joe Pug (who sang a great rendition of “Mama’s Eyes”) after the show, that I acknowledged how quickly the whole performance seem to flow by. That’s Nashville for you — professional people entertaining at a high level and kicking ass for a living. The only technical mishap happened when Jason Isbell’s guitar was not making a sound. In the thirty seconds it took for the stage hands to get it rolling, Isbell made a crack that Justin would have told him “that’s what you get for not playing acoustic guitar like a real man,” followed by laughter and then his thoughtful rendition of “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” It was another important moment of human being connection for all of us.
Another favorite performance of the night was Bonnie Whitmore, who belted out the words and played the bass on “Maria.” I thought back to those times when they were together as a couple and Justin was premiering at SXSW. He played something like 17 different sets in a few days and we crossed paths several times. He was a very hardworking man — an obsessed workaholic at a very young age. Usually the roots music fans of the world don’t take to the youngsters so quickly as they haven’t quite lived the life to sing songs with such authority, but that simply was not the case for JTE. He had experienced more of the wild side in his teenage years than most poets I know. The road was a natural second home to him. It may have even been his preferred home.
He is quoted as saying that if the music or touring went away that there would be nothing left for him but prison or death. There are some who argue that the pandemic’s arrival really crushed his spirit and sent him spiraling back to the heavier drugs of his past.
As I mentioned earlier, I could not help but witness this whole night through the recovery lens of survivors and those we lose along the way. We need both kinds in this crazy world of music and art, one informs the other — in order for there to be some kind of balance in a world of certain chaos and turmoil. No matter what side you lean towards, it will always be a shame when we lose one so young and talented as Justin Townes Earle. Perhaps his loss will somehow prevent another from going that same route. I am very grateful to have crossed his path, and like the songs he wrote, he will in fact live forever.
After the lively and obligatory group singalong on “Harlem River Blues,” the night ended most somberly with Steve Earle singing “Last Words,” a one chord meditation of a song he wrote for his Justin. A heavy dose of melancholy and, finally, love, descended on the Ryman. I am not sure how Steve was able to get through it but we all stayed there with him. From start to finish it was perhaps the most emotionally charged show I have ever attended.
Thanks Denis Grabill of Black Oak Artists for inviting me to the show and thanks Martha King for the photographs.
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: Justin Townes Earle and Lydia Loveless at OKCs Tower Theater Could Be Concert of the Year
Find more about Tim Easton here: Key to the Highway: Tim Easton
Yuma (Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart)
Maria (Bonnie Whitmore backed by the Dukes)
Down on the Lower East Side (Dustin Welch backed by the Dukes)
Down on the Lower East Side
Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This (Elizabeth Cook)
Learning to Cry (Jessica Lea Mayfield)
Mama’s Eyes (Joe Pug)
Lone Pine Hill (Buddy Miller)
Memphis in the Rain (Ben Nichols)
One More Night In Brooklyn (Emmylou Harris)
Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Jason Isbell)
Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving (Amanda Shires)
Workin’ For the MTA (Shooter Jennings)
Far Way in Another Town (Steve Earle)
The Saint Of Lost Causes (Steve Earle)
Harlem River Blues (All Artists)
Last Words (Steve Earle)