In September 2020, the British trip-hop artist and producer Tricky released Fall to Pieces, an album partly inspired by the death of his 24-year-old daughter, Mina Mazy. “I hate this fucking pain,” ran a typical lyric.
Now comes J.T., an album recorded by Steve Earle & The Dukes to mark the death from a suspected drug overdose of the singer’s son, Justin Townes Earle, in August 2020. Steve Earle’s response to personal tragedy is in marked contrast to Tricky’s: J.T., as he was known, was a recording artist of some renown with a rich catalogue of songs, and Earle has chosen to commemorate his son’s life with an album of J.T.’s songs. The result, released on what would have been J.T.’s 39th birthday, January 4, is full of life.
Earle senior is known for his gritty countrified brand of Americana, and J.T.’s music was in much the same vein — giving Earle no tricky genre hurdles to overcome. But Earle’s approach is raspier, gnarlier, rootsier. Earle Jr’s voice was rich and resonant; Steve’s vocal cords, on the other hand, sound as if they have been peppered with ground glass and buckshot and left to marinate in a flagon of whiskey.
It must have been tough for Earle to tackle these songs, but one gets the sense that it was also a cathartic experience: many of the tracks here are up-tempo, upbeat anthems to carefree living. “I Don’t Care” is a classic “I’m-getting-out-of-this-hellhole-town” song, its bitterness mixed with joy at the prospect of freedom, while his list of possible destinations is a celebration of the unique musicality of American place names: “Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City, Tucumcari, Amarillo or Los Angeles . . . ”
The country-blues of “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” similarly paints a picture of a restless, reckless, dissolute lifestyle, the singer-as-cowboy, itinerant and unattached. On “They Killed John Henry”, Earle boasts that, “They killed John Henry, but they won’t kill me”, in a song that references both the folk hero and the old ballad that celebrates him.
“Maria” is a rather more straightforward rock song, decorated here with happy-sad mandolin: looking back on a love affair, our man sings, “We’re better off if we all remain strangers.”
Perhaps the standout track is “Harlem River Blues”, on which the song’s anti-hero is taking himself off to drown; with double-stopped fiddle and an arrangement that has more than a whiff of Cajun, Earle — like his son before him — makes this sound like an exhilarating proposition.
The closing track is a Steve Earle original, “Last Words”, a tribute to his son. Here the carefree wanderers and free spirits who have inhabited the previous 10 songs are absent: this is heartfelt, dark and deeply personal. “Last thing I said was ‘I love you,’” Earle sings to a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. The sky is further darkened by droning violin and sombre drums. “Your last words to me were ‘I love you.’”
‘J. T.’ is released on New West Records
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