The Album Steve Earle Never Wanted to Make: A Tribute to His Son

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Less than two months after Justin Townes Earle’s death from an accidental overdose, his father entered Electric Lady Studios to record an LP’s worth of his songs.

On the evening of Aug. 20, Steve Earle spoke to his son Justin Townes Earle for the last time.

In a phone call initiated by Justin, they caught up on family business and Steve, the country-rock singer-songwriter, who struggled with addiction for years, told his son — a lauded musician in his own right — that he would support him if he was ready to begin his own recovery.

“I said, ‘Do not make me bury you,’” the elder Earle recalled in an interview. “And he said, ‘I won’t.’”

That night, Justin, 38, died alone in an apartment in Nashville of an accidental drug overdose; an autopsy found evidence in his blood of cocaine laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid. For Earle, the death of his eldest son set off waves of grief. He had watched Justin grow from a scraggly teenage hip-hop fan intrigued by Kurt Cobain to a rising star of Americana music — the fuzzy intersection in the Venn diagram of folk, country and rock, where Earle has long been a looming presence.

Justin, who released eight albums and an EP over 13 years, had a mordant songwriting style that bore the influence of Townes Van Zandt, the fatalistic folk oracle who was Earle’s mentor and Justin’s namesake. It also had the unmistakable imprint of Earle himself, whose best songs, whether performed in loud bands or alone with an acoustic guitar, have always had a certain rock ’n’ roll sneer.

Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle in 1999.
Sara Sharpe

Justin, like his father, also spent years as an addict, using heroin since his teens. Alcoholism plagued him throughout his career, and took a hard toll in his later years. Justin was hospitalized with pneumonia over the summer, having aspirated vomit in his lungs, and was told by a doctor that he would die if he did not quit drinking, Steve said.

But while Steve eventually got clean — after spending time in prison in 1994 on drug and weapons charges — his son succumbed to the disease. Among Justin’s survivors are his wife, Jennifer, and a 3-year-old daughter, Etta St. James Earle.

“I’ve never loved anything in this world more than him,” Earle said. “I was connected to him in ways that, you know — he’s my first born, he did the same thing I did and we both had this disease.”

Within days of Justin’s death, Earle, 65, began work on what would become “J.T.,” an album of 10 of Justin’s songs, and one new track by his father, that will be released on Jan. 4, which would have been Justin’s 39th birthday. Proceeds from the LP will go to a trust to benefit Etta.

“His best songs were as good as anybody’s,” said Earle, whose Greenwich Village apartment is crammed with photos of Justin, including one black-and-white shot on the wall showing his 3-year-old son chomping on a candy apple. “He was a way better singer than I am, a way better guitar player, technically, than I am. His fingerpicking could be mind-blowing.”

“He was just one of those people,” Earle added, “that never felt like he was enough.”

“J.T.” — Justin’s childhood nickname — is the latest entry in what has become a grim specialty for Earle: the tribute album for a departed musical confidant. “Townes” was released in 2009, a dozen years after Van Zandt died; “Guy,” a homage to the songwriter Guy Clark, came out three years after Clark’s death in 2016. But “J.T.” was made while Earle’s pain was still raw. During recording sessions in October, the official cause of Justin’s death had still not been determined.

Meghan Marin for The New York Times

Recorded with the Dukes, Earle’s longtime backing band — including Chris Masterson on guitar, Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel guitar, Jeff Hill on bass and Brad Pemberton on drums — “J.T.” includes some of Justin’s best-known songs, like “Harlem River Blues,” “Champagne Corolla” and “The Saint of Lost Causes,” the title track of Justin’s final album, released in 2019.

Earle’s craggy-voiced performance underscores dark themes that were there all along. “Harlem River Blues” contemplates a drowning death. (“Tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried,” it goes. “Give my money to my baby to spend.”) “Turn Out My Lights,” about the phantom-limb ache for a former lover, takes on an eerie double meaning when Earle sings:

Even though I know you’re gone
I don’t have to be alone now
You’re here with me every night
When I turn out my lights

Recording the album “wasn’t cathartic as much as it was therapeutic,” Earle said. “I made the record because I needed to.”

“J.T.” is, in a sense, a double portrait of father and son. Justin was born in 1982, while Earle was a journeyman songwriter in Nashville. He and Justin’s mother, Carol Ann Hunter, split up when Justin was 3, around the time that Earle’s recording career began to take off. For much of Justin’s youth, Earle was touring or lost in the depths of drug addiction.

By Justin’s teenage years — once Earle was clean and out of prison — he was living with his father, and they developed a close musical bond. Earle recalled a pivotal moment when Justin, still a guitar novice, was stunned by Cobain’s stark acoustic performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” with Nirvana on “MTV Unplugged,” unaware of the song’s provenance from the folk icon Leadbelly. Earle pointed his son to the L section of his record collection, where Leadbelly abutted the bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.

“Next thing I knew,” Earle said, “he was playing Mance songs that I had never been able to figure out.”

Barry Toronto

Justin played in two bands, the Swindlers and the Distillers, before going solo in his 20s. In 2007, Justin’s debut EP, “Yuma,” introduced him as a stylish traditionalist with a hint of punk-rock attitude. Within a few years, he was building a reputation in New York, appearing frequently (as performer or patron) at a bar near his East Village apartment.

He developed an irresistible persona for the media, dressing in retro suits and hats, blithely recounting his struggle with drugs while reveling in the notoriety it brought. “There’s really no such thing as bad press,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2010.

Shooter Jennings, the country-rock singer — and son of the outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings — recalled Justin during this period as an almost intimidating talent, albeit one who still lived under the shadow of a famous father.

“When you get out there, there’s going to be this built-in audience of people that are curious to see what Steve Earle’s son is like, or what Waylon Jennings’s son is like,” Jennings said. “So there’s this bit of distrust with the audience from the very beginning. Are they here because they like my music, or are they here because they like my dad’s music?”

TO RECORD “J.T.,” Earle, with the help of his son Ian, 33, winnowed Justin’s work to a list of 10 songs — two of them, “Turn Out My Lights” and “Far Away in Another Town,” Justin wrote with Scotty Melton — and booked a week at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

He worked fast, sending his band preparatory notes by text message. By the time they began recording, Justin had been dead for less than two months. (They began sessions before Oct. 20.) Earle, who had largely avoided speaking publicly about Justin’s death, wanted the album to be his statement.

He was also wary of being roped into anyone else’s memorial.

“I did not want to be asked to be on a tribute record with several people that I thought absolutely were enablers and helped kill him,” Earle said, his words flecked with expletives. “So I thought the way to nip that in the bud was to make a record of my own.”

At this point in his career, Earle — bespectacled, with a long salt-and-pepper beard — is a Renaissance man for whom mortality and addiction have been perennial subject matter. In addition to his many albums, Earle has written a play about a woman on death row and a novel about the specter of Hank Williams, and contributed music to a recent play about a mining disaster in West Virginia. Lately he has been writing a science-fiction story intended for television.

The night before the first session for “J.T.,” Earle gathered the band at his apartment for a sushi meal. Ray Kennedy, Earle’s longtime engineer, recalls the time in Electric Lady as being celebratory but focused. They began each day at 10 a.m. and finished by 4 p.m., so that Earle could take care of his youngest son, John Henry, 10, who has autism.

“It felt positive,” Kennedy said. “It felt like we were taking an expression of somebody’s art and creativity and giving it back to the world in a different package.”

Earle, slouching on his sofa with a green bandanna as a face mask, seemed almost bemused by the question of whether recording his dead son’s songs was difficult to get through.

“I inoculated myself to some degree,” he said. “I was prepared for it to be horrific. But the truth is, it was kind of business as usual in a lot of ways.”

Justin’s catalog, with its frequent themes of the entanglements and disappointments of family, might seem a minefield for Earle. He did not record anything from his son’s albums “Absent Fathers” or “Single Mothers.” He also avoided one of Justin’s best-known songs, “Mama’s Eyes,” which begins: “I am my father’s son/I’ve never known when to shut up.”

Meghan Marin for The New York Times

Those songs, Earle said, simply didn’t hold up as well as others he chose, which showcase Justin’s economical storytelling voice. The choices also contrast the two men’s styles. “J.T.” opens with “I Don’t Care,” a jaunty, fingerpicked ditty from “Yuma.” The Dukes play it as a rollicking hootenanny, with Earle growling its sardonic twist on a folk cliché: “I don’t know where I’m going no more/I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

Other songs reveal an interplay between the two men and their music. Justin’s “Lone Pine Hill,” a Civil War ballad with a Townes Van Zandt-style guitar part, Earle sees as indebted to his “Ben McCulloch,” about a disillusioned Confederate soldier. For two of Justin’s earliest tunes, “Maria” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving,” Kennedy dug out tapes of Justin’s original arrangements with the Swindlers, which he and Earle recorded in 2001, when Justin was 19.

Earle said that in writing “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man,” from his most recent album, “Ghosts of West Virginia” (2020), he “deliberately emulated” Justin’s guitar part on his song “They Killed John Henry.”

“It always made me incredibly jealous that Justin had a John Henry song and I didn’t,” he said.

The song that was the most painful to record is also the album’s most powerful: “Last Words,” a heartbreaking synopsis of a father’s journey, from holding his newborn son to speaking to him for the last time. Earle wrote it less than a week after Justin died, and he described it as “maybe the only song I’ve ever written in my life that every single word in it is true.”

“Last thing I said was ‘I love you,’” Earle sings, over acoustic guitar and ominous, droning feedback. “Your last words to me were ‘I love you too.’”

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