ALBUMS: Steve Earle Bids a Final Farewell To His Firstborn Son

J.T. navigates an uncertain divide between respect and remorse

Steve Earle & The Dukes J.T., New West Records 2021

It seems unimaginable what a parent must feel when a child precedes them in passing.

It’s no less difficult for a musician, who’s normally adept at expressing emotion, to express that anguish in a way that convey the tragedy and their own feelings of futility. So it was bound to be a difficult listen to Steve Earle expressing his grief through J.T., an album that finds him covering songs once written by his son Justin Townes Earle, who unexpectedly passed away this past August  from what was subsequently ruled an overdose related to use of cocaine. Given the elder Earle’s struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, it’s easy to imagine the pain and torment he felt knowing his son suffered through the same scenario. 

Artist: Steve Earle & The Dukes

Album: J.T.

Label: New West Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars)

Somewhat surprisingly however, J.T. is neither morose or melancholy, at least for the most part. It begins with the rollicking ‘I Don’t Care” and though the title suggests the songs harbors some sort of nonchalant attitude, in reality, it bears anything but, sharing instead a rousing and rollicking barnburner of a tune. Several of the other numbers follow suit, from the jaunty delivery of “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” and the somewhat celebratory sound of “They Killed John Henry,” to the surprising sing-along “Harlem River Blues,” the easy, amiable ramble of  “Turn Out  the Lights” and the rowdy and rambunctious “Champagne,” easily the most insurgent stance implanted overall. 

In truth, it’s Earle’s longtime backing band The Dukes that deserve credit for keeping the mood  so upbeat and engaging, and their drive and indeed, the delivery never gets mired in darkness or despair. The only actual exceptions are found in the plaintive plea of “Far Away in Another Town” and the album’s final entry, Earle’s sole original, appropriately titled “Last Words.” An weary, weathered ballad, it expresses the regret and remorse of a heartbroken father bidding his son a final farewell.“You made me laugh, you made me cry, you told me truths, you told me lies,” he tells his “Cowboy” (the nickname he says was given Justin early on), allowing his pain to become all the more palatable in the process. 

In listening to J.T., one can’t help but notice a lump in the throat and the feeling of unshakable sadness that accompanies any sudden and unexpected goodbye. What resonates as well is the respect and reverence that Earle had for his son, sentiments that may have gone unsaid in the wake of somewhat turbulent relationship. As a result, J.T. becomes a tender and touching tribute to a talented artist sensitive soul who left this world too soon. 


Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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