Published Jan 04, 2021Tumultuous as their relationship was, Steve Earle clearly reveres his son Justin Townes Earle as a songwriter. Years after Steve (himself a recovering addict) fired Justin from the Dukes due to Justin's struggles with addiction, and months after Justin's death of a drug overdose, comes J.T., a new tribute album released on what would have been Justin's 39th birthday.
Over the first 10 tracks, the country legend passionately interprets Justin's deep cuts and fan faves alike. Steve's takes on "Harlem River Blues" and "They Killed John Henry," from Justin's circa-2010 critical heyday, are as raucously upbeat and unabashedly old school as the originals. Better still: his careful attention to Justin's overlooked early work. Nearly half of J.T. sports tracks from Justin's first LP, 2008's The Good Life. "Lone Pine Hill" carries the spirit of Justin's original version, itself written in the spare, hauntingly literary tradition of Steve's songwriting mentor and Justin's namesake, Townes Van Zandt. Here, Steve honours both Townes' legacies, a sentiment that Steve makes palpable in his rendition.
The Good Life highlight "Turn Out My Lights" is also a key track on J.T. — it blooms from a breakup ballad into a mourner's hymn thanks to Steve's deftly tender tonal and lyrical tweaks. The Dukes bring further heft to the cover thanks to Eleanor Whitmore's heart-wrenching fiddling and the fresh wound throb of Ricky Ray Jackson and Brad Pemberton's respective pedal steel and percussion. Those elements sharply contrast with Justin's threadbare first go-around (which he penned when he was merely 16, as if to prove himself prodigious enough to be named Townes).
Listeners will be brought to further cathartic tears by the album's sole original song. Steve closes J.T. with "Last Words," writing its lyrics with appropriately plain sincerity, and softening his famous rasp with hushed singing, as Jackson's dobro and Whitmore's fiddle resound beyond this life.
All that being said, fans should also bear in mind Justin and Steve's cameo on Treme, David Simon's New Orleans-set sleeper hit TV series. That's because the older Earle brings the jubilation of a Big Easy funeral march to much of J.T. He eagerly makes room for Justin's wryly metaphorical "Champagne Corolla" and keeps pace with his son's breathlessly loquacious "I Don't Care." Steve also makes a southern rock stomper of Justin's stab at Memphis Soul, "Maria."
"The record is called J.T. because Justin was never called anything else until he was nearly grown. Well, when he was little, I called him Cowboy," Steve said in a press release. By not only fearlessly facing grief, but also honouring Justin's sly humor, raw vulnerability and nimble songwriting, Steve Earle fittingly sees his young Cowboy off into the sunset. (New West)