Steve Earle and The Dukes
(New West Records)
The fact is that no parent ever assumes they’ll outlive their children. There’s a security in that knowledge; at a certain point, parents realize that it’s unlikely they’ll accomplish all the things that they hoped to do in their lifetimes (either for themselves or for their progeny – some things will simply be left undone), and so there’s a certain comfort which comes with the knowledge that one’s children will find a way to finish all the things which were left undone – and probably accomplish more than that in their own right as well.When a parent is not survived by their progeny though, that fact causes something of a short circuit; eventually, a grim realization that some things which once seemed so important will simply be left undone, and the world will continue – indifferent to the fact that those goals were never completed.
With his newest album, JT, Steve Earle seeks to pay tribute to his son Justin – who died in 2020 at the age of thirty-eight from an accidental drug overdose – by picking up his son’s songbook and recording a set of songs from it. The goal may be to intertwine his son’s inspiration with his own, and thereby push it forward as he continues forward too; while the answer isn’t perfectly self-evident in these eleven songs, the sense of catharsis and the desire to move on while also paying genuine tribute to Justin Townes Earle is impossible to ignore.
As cathartic as the making of JT may have been for the artist, that fact isn’t readily apparent as needle catches groove and “I Don’t Care” opens the A-side of the album with a raucous blast. There, all of the archetypes for a hill-country folk classic align (sawed-at fiddle, understated pedal steel, simple and cymbal-free drums and acoustic guitar) and roll out before listeners easily and smoothly; the tempo is not quick, but the song just starts and easily gives listeners everything that they could possibly need to know about the album – the C&W, the heart, the point and the beautiful “I don’t know where I’m going” hook – in less than two minutes, and then just clears the way for what’s coming next. Because it rolls through so quickly, it’s easy to assume that there is some discomfort inherent to the song – but it doesn’t feel that way at all. Rather, “I Don’t Care” feels perfectly self-assured in its own presentation and takes precisely the amount of time it needs; no more, no less – just in, out and done. It’s a sort of epic introduction which isn’t repeated anywhere else in this running, and feels fantastic for it; “I Don’t Care” leaves listeners rushing for more as it tears out.
The rhythm and rush of “I Don’t Care” is quickly tempered for “I Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’,” which finds Earle clearing his throat repeatedly as an up-tempo country song tries to fold out, but still leaves imperfections in the image it presents. The notion of catharsis is effecting the singer’s performance here (hence the ragged delivery of Earle’s vocal just feels a little too overstated and earnest as a result but, happily, the singer establishes a better balance with “Marie” and “They Killed John Henry,” which places greater emphasis on a great performance and not on an obviously emotional or overwrought performance.
The desire to present a darker-toned song which doesn’t sink under its own sentiments gets realized successfully when “Lone Pine Hill” opens the B-side of JT – and sees its singer achieving a greater sense of consistency as “Champagne Corolla” finds a great rock tone but doesn’t let it get mawkish by over- or under-playing it. In this case, listeners are able to forget the emotional nexus of the album (that it is a tribute to a particular individual) and just enjoy it, as it is. It’s not a sense which is held long or often on JT (“Saint of Lost Causes” follows “Lone Pine Hill” and nosedives back into the broken heart of the album) but it is a particular gift when the right feeling does come through.
Now, some readers will definitely scoff and say that I missed the point of JT, or that I’m being unfair to it in some way – but neither of those things is true. I do applaud Steve Earle for paying tribute to his son with JT, I just think he may have still been too close to the event (his son’s death – but is anyone really capable of getting far enough away from an event like that to effectively articulate it?) to let the tape roll on it. There’s no question that JT was a necessary step for Steve Earle to take in his healing process, but not every note of that process needed to be heard by fans. Like it as not, JT could easily have been pared down to an EP’s worth of songs. [Bill Adams]
JT is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.