Steve Earle’s newest, a tribute to his late son Justin Townes Earle, delivers a mournful-yet-celebratory look at a father’s love for his departed son.
Steve Earle has already devoted a sizable chunk of his discography to tribute albums, honoring his personal pantheon of formative influences. An exploratory Townes Van Zandt record in 2009, a ragged-but-right homage to Guy Clark 10 years later. His latest, J.T., is, as a New York Times profile put it, the album he never wanted to make: A collection of 10 songs written by his son, Justin Townes Earle, who died last summer of an accidental overdose. The elder Earle curates songs that span his son’s rich and all too fleeting recording career. It concludes with “Last Words,” the plainspoken send-off of a father cursed to outlive his child.
Obviously, it’s a heavy, purposeful album, made all the more so by the announcement that all proceeds will go into a trust fund for Justin’s daughter, Etta. Remarkably, though, it’s never as painfully bleak or funereal as you might expect it to be, for three basic reasons. The first of those is the presence of the Dukes, Steve’s long-time backing band, who’ve never sounded looser or more confident than they do here, bringing boisterous energy and casual versatility to everything they touch whether it’s rowdy bluegrass rambles (“I Don’t Care”) or thrumming blues (“Champagne Corolla”). Second thing is the elder Earle’s intuitive interpretation of his son’s music. Justin always conveyed a world-weariness beyond his years, and his words sound just right when delivered through his dad’s leathery rasp. (Listen to Steve’s jaded sneer in “The Saint of Lost Causes,” where he makes a feast of his son’s wounded cynicism.) But more than anything, J.T. is beautiful for how it manages to be both a eulogy and a rousing celebration of life: You can’t deny its mournful undercurrents, but neither can you diminish Steve’s energetic embrace of Justin’s rich, smart, emotionally articulate body of work. This is both an excellent Steve Earle album and, in its way, a terrific Justin Townes Earle one; the fruit of tragedy, and very much an act of love.
Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2021 | Part 1.