It’s hard to fathom, for those of us who have not experienced it, the bottomless grief you must have, as a father, to bury a son. And that grief must only have been incredibly more vast for Steve Earle, who had to lay his son Justin Townes Earle to rest last year after a death by accidental overdose after a long and public struggle with substance abuse. That death was public and the grief part of the hell year of 2020, Justin’s death coming in a year of death and sadness for everyone you know, which couldn’t have made it easier. But Steve and his band, the Dukes, filtered that grief into something immediately productive: J.T., out today, an album of 10 Justin Townes Earle covers, and one original, with proceeds going to a fund for Justin’s daughter. J.T. is a harrowing, affecting, beautiful, and gut-wrenching album; an 11-song stages of grief filtered through a dad lovingly covering the best of his son’s songs.
Before we get to the Justin Townes covers, first, we need to cover “Last Words,” the final song on this album, and a sad, riveting song that Steve wrote as a final tribute to Justin. He doesn’t gloss over the sometimes-public spats he and Justin had over the years — Steve had to kick him out of the Dukes for drug use at one point — and remembers his son for all his complexity. “You made me laugh, you made me cry / showed me truth and told me lies / tore my heart apart, man / brought me back a piece again / now I don’t know what I’ll do, until the day I follow you / through the darkness, to the light / cuz I loved you for all your life,” Steve sings over churning strings and an acoustic guitar, before remembering that the last thing he told his son was he loved him, and Justin said it back. It’s a song that lays bare the grief of death, in that you never get to resolve all the things that happened between you and all you're left with is ruminations on your last interaction.
While the conceit, and that final song, are heartbreaking, the rest of the album is marked for its uplift; it’s a celebration of Justin’s life and songs more than it is a processional. Steve and the Dukes deliver up-tempo, oft-raucous and rollicking covers of everything from “Harlem River Blues” to the recent “The Saint of Lost Causes.” Justin’s songs were often pockets of hard-learned wisdom, little dioramas of sad, happy, and wild moments, and J.T. lays that out plainly. Justin Townes Earle’s death was a terrible tragedy, but his body of work deserves to be remembered, reconsidered, and re-learned. And J.T. is a wonderful start.