Steve Earle mourns and memorializes his son in new album
The album that is under review today begins with a story. Though the album is sung by Steve Earle and accompanied by The Dukes, the story begins with Steve’s son Justin Townes Earle. Justin, or J.T., was a singer-songwriter, artist and a bright light that the world tragically lost in late August of 2020. Being extremely close some days and estranged others, his death came with much searching, grieving and thinking for Steve Earle. Dealing with one of the deepest pains that humans can experience changes people. Some dive deep into alcohol, some into relationships, some into drugs; artists pour themselves into their craft. As unfortunate as it is, the worst scars make for the best music. Emotional wounds gave us Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreaks, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. As listeners, we must wish all the best for the artists that we choose to love—how can you not?—yet when tragedy strikes, emotion is poured into records and we are gifted a groundbreaking album.
Named J.T. for his son, Steve Earle navigates the grief of losing a child in his newest album. He does this by performing many of J.T.’s originally written songs. If people were to look at the album credits, they would find Justin Townes Earle’s name in the “writers” category more times than not. The first chance people get to hear his gravely, down-home voice is in “I Don’t Care.” It showcases the feeling of uncertainty that surrounds grief so often. Singing “I don’t know where I’m going no more. I don’t know, and I don’t care” Earle admits to feeling lost—so lost in fact, that he doesn’t even care that he’s lost. Backed by a playful fiddle, drum line and guitar, some irony is displayed between the music and the lyrics themselves.
Earle strays from the pain briefly to get in a classic, old Steve Earle jam about hard living in his second song “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving.” “I’ll never be the one you need” warns Earle to an unnamed woman. Attempting to soften the blow of his leaving, this character tries to convince her of his destructive ways. After this song, listeners reach one of the best songs on the album, “Maria.” Clearly another J.T. original, this song feels different from many others that people have heard from Earle and the Dukes over the years. It feels different because it sounds slightly more modern than what people are used to. Steel guitars dance between electric ones while held on a foundation of a rock drum set.
“Far Away In Another Town” enters with an organ and his voice that grabs instantly. It continues on to open up into a slow beat with a light guitar to accompany it. Earle seeks solace in another place yet doesn’t exactly know where that might be. He travels to travel. In a situation wherein one was forced to listen to only one song on this album for the rest of one’s life, it would be this one.
Earle shows his fun side in “Champagne Corolla.” The whole three-and-a-half-minute song is an inquisition of another man about whether or not he had seen a girl in a champagne Corolla driving around. Not only does he like the girl, but he likes the car. His ideal scenario and the final lyrics of the song are “I’ll ride away with that girl in her champagne Corolla.”
“Last Words” ends the album on a solemn note. This song ties the entire album together. Written by Steve Earle, this track is for J.T. He opens with a shock to the heart about seeing his son born. Earle then reflects on life with him, life apart and the decisions he himself had made that led to the father-son duo’s rocky relationship. The quote that reverberates throughout the album is this one: “I wish I could have held you when you left this world like I did then.”
Their last words to each other were “I love you,” so in the end, Steve and Justin Townes were able to reconcile. It’s a nice little piece to an otherwise gloomy story, but the story ends here, and looking back at this album for what it is, J.T. is a pretty fantastic album. Musically, lyrically and emotionally—everything was there that needed to be there in order to make an album great. Steve Earle and the Dukes, like usual, have delivered. Ultimately, it seems that Justin Townes Earle had almost as much to do with the album as his dad did. Inspiring and writing all of the songs on it, he will forever be memorialized by music.