Steve Earle And The Dukes - J.T. (2021) - Album Review
By Paul Rigg
I Love You Too
“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.”
“The heartbreak is palatable and one can’t help but be moved by both the confession and the candor. Indeed, the poignancy is not without purpose.”
“Devastating, but utterly beautiful.”
These quotes, from people who have listened to Steve Earle & The Dukes JT, (4 January 2021; New West Records), go someway in explaining the desolation a father must feel in losing his son. I was immediately reminded of Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, but Steve Earle’s loss is a little different in that his son was a talented and respected singer-songwriter in his own right, like his father.
And like his father, Justin Townes Earle also had his addictions and his demons, which finally, on 20 August, 2020, overwhelmed him. ‘JT’, or ‘Cowboy’, as his father sometimes called him, accidentally overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine at the age of 38, and to honour his life the American folk singer covers 10 of his son’s songs and adds one original of his own. “It was the only way I knew to say goodbye,” says Steve Earle of this album.
In fact Earle not only makes his goodbye, in his own words, therapeutic for himself, but his tribute will also be helpful to many who listen to it. His interpretations (rather than covers) are almost universally rich and intensely moving. Furthermore, his son left a three year old daughter, Etta St. James Earle, and all the royalties from the album will go directly to her. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that when something devastating happens, practically all of us look for something positive to hold on to, no matter how small it is, and Earle has that, and we have his (their) songs.
The album kicks off with I Don't Care, from Justin’s debut, Yuma. Earle brings a more country vibe to the song and gives a new twist to his son’s lyrics: “I don’t know where I’m going no more, and I don’t care,” he sings, and it is not hard to guess where he is coming from.
Most of the songs here are taken from Justin's album The Good Life, such as Ain't Glad I'm Leaving, the second track on JT. This is followed by a more powerful rendition of Maria, which features pedal steel, and the wry suggestion that the singer is perhaps now better off without her. Far Away In Another Town features a hammond organ, a mandolin, and a violin, in addition to a new lyrical perspective. They Killed John Henry is reinterpreted in bluegrass style, but for this critic it is perhaps the least interesting on the record. Much stronger is Turn Out My Lights, which begins with a beautiful acoustic intro, before it blossoms in the skilled hands of The Dukes, which in this incarnation include Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel, Chris Masterson on guitar, Jeff Hill on bass and Brad Pemberton on drums.
Lone Pine Hill, Champagne Corolla and Harlem River Blues are all inspired reworkings, with the latter, about drowning oneself in dirty water, played in a more maudlin style, and appropriately placed near the end.
Last Words, the only original song by Steve Earle, provides the perfect end to the album. Like many fathers and sons, Steve Earle and Justin had moments of distance, but fortunately they were close at the end, and this album and in particular this song, reflects that fact. Steve chooses a hard-strummed acoustic, perhaps his signature Martin M-21, to sing about the moment he first held his newborn son, and his difficulties in being able to protect him as he grew. I can’t think of a better way to finish this review than by sharing the last words between Steve and his son, which also happen to be the final words of this heart-wrenching, but ultimately beautiful, album: “Last time we spoke was on the phone, And we hung up and now you’re gone, Last thing I said was I love you, Your last words to me were I love you too”.