Album Review: Steve Earle, ‘J.T.’

Although it’s the penultimate song on the album, the jubilant “Harlem River Blues” sets the tone for this album that celebrates the life and music of Earle’s oldest son, Justin Townes Earle, who died in August 2020. The gospel-inflected song poignantly looks toward leaving this life, toward a home-going that leaves behind the persistent and torturous troubles of this world. In the midst of the struggles there is a tenderness and a mercy that smooths the rough and rocky currents of the river whose waters the singers pleads to cover over him. The song contains within itself the promise of hope in the midst of the shadows, light in the midst of the darkness, warmth in the midst of the cold corners of life.

On J.T., Steve Earle, backed by The Dukes, offers the most enduring and emotional tribute a parent can provide a child who has died: he keeps his voice alive by singing his songs. All but the album’s final song, “Last Words,” were written by Justin, and the father conjures the spirit of the son in these versions. These songs evoke the hard-traveled life that Justin Townes Earle lived, as well as his love of the highway, his commitment to social justice, and his own struggles with his mortality. Even so, Steve Earle delivers these songs exuberantly, as reminder that Justin Townes chose life and to live it as hard and with as much joyous—and sometimes reckless—abandon as his father once did.

Skittering fiddles kick off the opening track, “I Don’t Care,” and mandolin and guitar chase the fiddle around in the bluegrass rambler of an ode to the devil-may-care embrace of the open road, while the shuffling bluegrass blues of “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” celebrates the excesses of the open road and the challenges of staying put with one person in one place. The rollicking rocker “Maria,” riding along the alternating waves of steel guitar and mandolin is a “gotta-be-going” song, as is the ambling folk blues “Far Away in Another Town,” which poignantly evokes lonesomeness with steel guitar runs. The rousing folk ballad “They Killed John Henry” still needs to be sung at labor meetings and civil rights protests, and the minor chord rumination “The Saint of Lost Causes,” floating on shimmering guitars and Earle’s growling vocals, is a perfect song for our time, and, perhaps, captures Justin’s pain in a fuller way than any of his songs. The album closes with Earle’s spare “Last Words,” on which Earle stands naked with his pain as he recalls in his gravelly vocals that the last words he uttered to Justin were “I love you.”

The ragged beauty and raw emotions of J.T. create a fitting tribute from father to son, and Earle invites us to celebrate Justin’s life and to allow his words to dwell in our own emotional terrain for a while.

J.T. is available now digitally and CD and vinyl editions will be released on March 19, 2021. 100% of the artist advances and royalties from the album will be donated to a trust for Etta St. James Earle, Justin’s three-year-old daughter.

J.T. is available HERE.


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