By AVA LIVERSIDGE
On August 20, 2020, Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, the proto-country Americana master paving the way for classic country with a modern edge and dispelling the bad reputation imparted of the derelict contemporary-country scene, tragically passed away at 38 years old.
Justin Townes, who was supposed to be the one to continue his father’s legacy into oblivion, must instead be remembered by his father for the mark he left on the musical world.
J.T. , a full-length record and devotional released earlier this month, is Steve Earle’s legacy album dedicated to his son, a last body of work to, first, remember, and then, set free the artistic endowment of his son.
As for their living legacy, both Steve Earle and his son transcend the dismissive label of “country” musicians. While their music is oft marked by tried-and-true honky tonk methods of composition and production, both artists sit at the forefront of a genre-defying roots movement, combining prolific and witty lyricism with singer/songwriter and Americana minimalist production for a fresh take on country tradition. This innovation dies hard with the legacy Justin Townes was just beginning to carry on.
J.T. is a career-spanning tribute album consisting of 10 of Justin Townes’s tracks, covered by Steve Earle, and one original composition to close the record. Its framing as a tribute album is of particular importance for J.T., as the bond between these two singer-songwriters is not just one of deep reverence for Justin Townes’s artistic prowess, but also a bond of blood — and the tenderness of this paternal bond is audible in the way Steve Earle handles and delivers his son’s masterpieces.
The first half of the LP is cultivated into an upbeat Western feel ornamented by tinny guitar sounds and syncopated strings played by Steve Earle’s backing band, The Dukes. As the record moves to its back half, however, it surrenders itself in tone and lyricism to a more somber resting place while maintaining the sparse production and similarly styled instrumentals.
Not only does the compilation include cuts from across Justin Townes Earle’s discography, covering his debuts “Lone Pine Hill” and “Turn Out My Lights” to cuts from his 2019 record, The Saint of Lost Causes , but they were also carefully selected by those closest to him to best honor J.T. ‘s musical and personal course.
Justin Townes Earle wrote a lot of songs about death. Whether it be simply a ubiquitous theme ingrained in him by the classic country he was raised on, à la his namesake Townes Van Zandt and compatriots whose song was often shaded by the feeling of darkness on the horizon, or an ominous theme in Earle’s life, one marred by struggles with substance abuse which would eventually take him.
Death certainly is a motif throughout his discography, something listeners are privy to on J.T.. Tracks like “Harlem River Blues,” a song musically composed of a full rhythm section and imposing twang, which dually features an eerie self-reflection of Justin’s own mortality and what his loved-ones should do when he’s gone.
To compliment Justin’s personal song-writing themes and commemorate the life of a son, the final track of the previously strictly-covers album is a Steve Earle original track aptly-titled “Last Words.” The song narrates the sweetness of the life that Justin Townes briefly lived, the cherished reminiscences of a father and son, and the tragedy that has marked the Earle family.
Steve Earle – Guitar, Mandolin, Octave Mandolin, Harmonica and Vocal
Chris Masterson – Guitar, Mandolin, 1 Finger Piano and Vocal
Eleanor Whitmore – Fiddle, Mandolin, Organ and Vocal
Ricky Ray Jackson – Pedal Steel Guitar, Dobro and Vocal
Jeff Hill – Acoustic and Electric Bass, Cello and Vocal
Brad Pemberton – Drums, Percussion, and Vocal