The five hardest words Steve Earle ever had to say came when he had to open his Hardcore Troubadour Radio show in the summer of 2020. Earle had just received the news that his son had tragically passed away and it took everything within him to begin the show and be able to say, “Justin Townes Earle, 1982-2020.”
The loquacious Earle, who is never at a loss for a good story, couldn’t say anything more nor did he need to as he let his son’s music play uninterrupted for the show’s entire hour.
Two and a half years later, Earle found himself standing center stage at the Ryman Auditorium for a celebration of Justin’s life. It was in the same building where he last saw him play and the same city where his son was born and died.
When Earle came out to welcome the full house and more than a thousand people like me who were watching the live event stream, he had to grapple with the dichotomy that this would be a great show but one you hope you never have to do. The tribute would have occurred on Justin’s 41st birthday and was delayed a year by Covid.
To get through the night, Earle relied on his great storytelling, use of anecdotes and sharing the insights of being a father and seeing so much of himself in the son he loved more than anything.
As artists and friends like Lilly Hiatt, Dustin Welch, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Emmylou Harris and other all-stars played songs from Justin’s extensive catalog, his father had take in the enormity of a life lost, one song at a time.
Time has a way of making the past seem like it was just yesterday. For Earle the path that brought him to the Ryman began not too far away where Justin was born at Baptist Hospital, Earle recalled that night walking into Springwater to see a line of shots awaiting him as he told anyone who would listen that he was a new father.
Earle balanced taking in the tributes with his emcee duties as he had to make an emotional walk back and forth to the same place stage right where he last saw his son play. It meant passing by the plethora of guest performers who each chose a song and represented a personal connection to the younger Earle’s life.
The two were connected by blood and music. When Justin Towne Earle grew into a budding songwriter, his father had a certain pride hearing his son’s name starting to get mentioned around town. Perhaps he saw a little of himself around that age, remembering when he was young and got a publishing job making $75 a week thanks to Guy Clark. Recalling how he, Kevin Welch and Gary Nicholson watched their sons in the jug band the Swindlers, Earle quipped that as he looked around Springwater, he saw the same dirt in the same place as when he played there twenty years earlier.
Before Bonnie Whitmore played a raucous version of “Maria,” she recalled meeting Justin for the first time and noting he kept a certain distance resulting from an awareness of his pedigree. Over time the younger Earle created his own identity that emerged over eight albums and a song catalogue that his father proudly says stands with anyone.
“I am my father’s son, I never learned to shut up,” Justin Townes Earle wrote in the opening line of his song “Mama’s Eyes,” At the Ryman, Joe Pug had the honor of singing this beautiful homage to the Earle family lineage. As the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore lent beautiful violin lines that felt downright mournful, Welch was overcome by emotion. When he came to the line where Justin writes of seeing his reflection in the mirror, Pug lost his voice and composure, indicative of the burden everyone carried as they came on stage.
The day after the celebration, Earle was back to the familiar and more comfortable routine of taping his weekly radio show for SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel..
Sounding hoarse and understandably emotionally drained, he seemed out of sorts as he began the show, recounting the date of the show as January 4, 1923.
Earle seemed at peace with the night’s outcome, glad to see it over but grateful it went as well as it did. He admitted it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
Earle spoke with a certain pride of watching kids like Shooter Jennings, Dustin Welch and Jason Isbell come of age and take up performing as a career. Justin and Jason played together on the David Letterman Show and as Earle recounted, came out of the gate at the same time.
“It’s hard watching your kids if they do the same thing,” he reflected. “It’s hard enough watching them play soccer. When they set off to do what you do, you have to watch them go out and take their first licks.”
Earle was particularly proud that his son turned out to be a better guitar player and singer than he was. He beamed that Justin had a personality all his own. “It didn’t have anything to do with me. It was just his own thing he made himself.”
Earle relayed a conversation he had with Shooter Jennings about what he and Justin had to go through because of the shadow of their parents. The conversation was illuminating for Earle who admitted he never thought about it. “I don’t have a shitload of regrets in this world but one of them is I didn’t realize that,” he confided, “so we could talk while Justin was here so I could let him know I knew about that.”
Earle, who became sober at 38, the same age his son was when he passed, seemed somewhat at peace and refuted many of the stories that had to do with how the two got along.
“We had periods of time where we didn’t get along,” he admitted. “Any period of time we didn’t communicate was short and I feel really fortunate that when he passed we were in touch and I didn’t have that to live through because that would make it even harder than it is. It’s a hole I get to walk around with the rest of my life.”
At the Ryman, after a sing-along of “Harlem River Blues” by all of the night’s performers, Earle stood alone to finish the show.
Singing the solemn “Last Words” that closes his tribute album J.T., Earle laid bare the emotions of the last conversation the two had. They each said they loved each other.
As Earle stood at center stage, he turned around and made one final salute to his son whose portrait, designed by friend Jon Langford, loomed large over the auditorium. He then turned around and made it through the difficult next few minutes.
It’s a song Earle is certain he will never sing again.