Steve Earle And The Dukes - 'J.T.' Album Review
1. I Don’t Care
2. Ain’t Glad To Be Leaving
4. Far Away In Another Town
5. They Killed John Henry
6. Turn Out My Lights
7. Lone Pine Hill
8. Champagne Corolla
9. The Saint Of Loat Causes
10. Harlem River Blues
11. Last Words
Steve Earle has made a point in the past few years of paying tribute to people who’ve made a huge influence on his musical legacy. I don’t mean covering the odd song, I mean putting out an entire album of them. In 2009 he released “Townes” a collection of songs by the troubadour Townes Van Zandt and then a decade later he added “Guy” after Guy Clarke. Both musicians helped shaped Earle’s writing and performing, teaching him their craft while taking him under their wing. 2021 sees Earle adding a third volume into this trilogy, and it’s one that hurts the most
“J.T.” is a collection of songs (all but one that is) written by his eldest son, Justin Townes Earle and released digitally on what would have been his birthday (hard copies will be available in a few months time). Justin took the finger picking style of modern Americana and added his own twist on it. An artist in his own right, Justin spent a short time as part of his dad’s backing band The Dukes (for the Revolution Starts Now tour if my brain cells serve me right) but forged himself a musical career of his own with several albums of his own. The news slipped out in August last year that Justin had passed away at the age of 38, succumbing to a drug habit that had dogged him on and off from the age of 12.
No parent should have to outlive their children, no matter the circumstances. Steve decided as a way of dealing with the grief and loss to assemble his band around him and head into a studio. The album is equal parts memorial, tribute and wake. You get the feeling that it’s the send off that Justin would have wanted.
The album opens with a roaring ‘I Don’t Care’ from Justin’s debut EP “Yuma”, and when I say roaring it tears through song. It’s pure Bluegrass with Steve handling his son’s spitfire lyrics without a stumble. The picked guitar mirrors JT’s own take on Woody Guthrie’s style. It’s followed by a swinging fiddle and pedal steel on ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving’ while ‘Maria’ sounds like it’s lifted directly from his dad’s back catalogue.
‘Far Away In Another Town’ has the song’s protagonist pining for escape from a failed relationship, a mournful organ carries the melody while a pedal steel, a mandolin and a guitar take the lead. The bluegrass fingerpicking of ‘They Killed John Henry’ shows Justin’s love of roots music ran deep, it’s style and content could have easily been grafted whole from a song nearly a century old.
The pairing of ‘Turn Out My Lights’ and ‘Lone Pine Hill’ work together so well. The playing of everyone is perfect, totally on point. You can tell this is an album that comes straight from the heart of the musicians involved as it feels more than just a tribute to the lost Earle. The Rolling Stones would be at the midnight crossroads in a heartbeat for a song like ‘Champagne Corolla’ as it’s shuffling rock and blues sounds like it’s stumbled drunkenly out of some cheap bar somewhere.
The final trio of songs, for me, are worth the price of the album alone. ‘The Saint Of Lost Causes’ is the title track of JT’s final album. It’s a widescreen, cinematic desert classic, Steve’s voice sounds burned and rasping from the countless cigarettes he’s smoked over the years. Apparently Justin was originally inspired to learn guitar properly after hearing Kurt Cobain’s unplugged take on Leadbelly’s classic ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ and this song sounds like it could do the same to someone else. ‘Harlem River Blues’ is probably the most well known of Justin’s songbook. In the original, he channels the roaming spirit of Hank Williams to perfection, its travelling spiritual is sublime and his father and friends play it to perfection. In fact, while researching for this write up I came across a clip of Justin performing the song on Dave Letterman’s Late Show (with a young looking Jason Isbell as part of his backing group) and I swear it gave me the chills so please go and check it out.
The final track is also the bitterest one of the album, which also makes it the hardest to write about. 'Last Words’ is the only Steve Earle original on the album and is a heart breaking tribute from father to son. I know whatever words I use to try and describe it simply won’t be enough; it’s like trying to describe someone’s grief. It’s a song feels at times so painfully honest and raw that listening to it feels almost like an intrusion. If you have ever lost anyone then this song will feel far too familiar, it will bring up all those memories and remind you of those stinging tears especially with it’s haunting chorus (Last thing I said was “I love you” / And your last words to me were “I love you too”).
“J.T.” is carries the emotional weight of being Steve Earle’s most personal album to date and it’s honestly an album I wish he never had to record and release. He takes his son’s songs and reminds us the talent the boy had and how loss and grief is universal, especially in the times we live now. There’s sadness but there’s also a kind of joy to it to as they celebrate the life and songs of someone that didn’t need to leave them as early as he did.
(Note: All artist advance and royalties from this album will be passed into a trust for Justin’s daughter Etta St. James Earle.)
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Review - Scott Hamilton