J.T. by Steve Earle


Pete and I were in Tulsa in 2014, looking for our hotel. We hadn’t got a SatNav and we were too scared of roaming charges to switch our phones on. We had Pete’s brilliant map book with a double page for every State and lots of city maps in the back. He was driving, I was attempting to map read. There was a big intersection ahead. I confidently told him to turn left so he swing across six lanes of highway at which point I realised that I meant “right”. No exaggeration, it took us half an hour to get back to that intersection. We both laughed about it.

We agreed that if we had made the same mistake with our better and wiser other halves, forgiveness would have been in short supply and laughter non existent. I am still often reminded about my instructions in Ireland which resulted in us driving in an hour long circle before I admitted I was lost. Still, not as bad as the time when Roo directed me into Aix-Le-Bains, looking for a museum. She told me to turn right and then added “after that, you’re on your own”. Not funny. But two old timers driving aimlessly in a hire car in Oklahoma, that’s hilarious.

Does everything have to be funny? It certainly helps to see the funny side of things. Is getting lost on holiday funny? Is getting old funny? As my Mum told me, “Never get old”, to which I replied “So you want me to die young?” She didn’t find that funny. Loudon Wainwright III named one of his albums “Older Than My Own Man Now”, which celebrated the fact that he was older than his father ever was. It was as if he could see the humour in finally beating his father in some weird competition as to who would live the longest. He also wrote a song called “Surviving Twin” which described how, although his father had died many years previously, by growing a beard, Loudon Wainwright III looked very much like his father, Loudon Wainwright II and became his surviving twin. That’s either perverse or funny, I’m not sure which.

I have a beard and, without it, I would look very much like my father. I have 13 years to go before I can release my album “I’m Also Older Than My Own Man Now”. Listening to this excellent Steve Earle album, in which he sings the songs of his recently deceased son, I’ve been thinking about the relationship I had with my father.

I met Pete for a walk on Brighton sea front on Wednesday. It was, as always, very pleasant and the coffee and cake went down nicely. We were wondering when friends of ours might retire and we spoke about how our unsuccessful attempts at promotion in our own careers led us to spend more time in classrooms and less time managing staff and carrying out admin tasks. I pretended to Pete that I didn’t care about not making it into Senior Management but the truth is, I am conflicted about this.

In 1999, I bought a computer game called Cricket Captain and, for several months, I was addicted. I picked a county team and played a full season. As expected, Kent did badly. This was nothing to do with my inability to understand how the game worked but solely because Kent are useless, always have been and always will be. In desperation, I became captain of the much hated, reviled and loathed Surrey. Unsurprisingly, I did quite well and was invited to captain England.

In 1999, my Dad noticed blood in his urine but did nothing about it until it was too late. In early 2000, he died of kidney cancer. I went to visit him in hospital and, for the last two weeks of his life, in a hospice. What conversation is one supposed to have with a dying parent? Nobody had told me or prepared me for this. I told him what I had been doing. Although there was much love flowing between us, he was genuinely horrified that I had made myself Captain of Surrey. I truly felt that I had let him down. I also told him about a possible promotion to Senior Management at work – I told him that I wasn’t sure whether or not to apply. The last piece of advice that my Dad ever gave me was always to apply for a job, even if I had some doubts. My Dad died a few days later. I applied for the job and didn’t get it. I spent a long time listening to “Heartbreaker” by Ryan Adams and “Ghost Of David” by Damien Jurado. I wonder now how much my disappointment at not getting the job was a displaced fear of seeing that look on my Dad’s face when I told him about my failure. On the other hand, he could never have been as upset as he was when he found out that I aspired to be captain of Surrey.

My Mum died 18 days after my Dad. When I went back to work, a very pleasant colleague came up to me to offer her condolences. She then spent ten minutes telling me how she felt when her parents had died. At the end of the conversation, I was offering her my sympathy. As I said before, nobody had prepared me for how I might feel. I can’t remember ever feeling such grief before or since and I think it has inured me to feeling upset in other circumstances. I resumed duties at Samaritans on Wednesday after a three month gap and one of the calls was very intense with the caller seriously contemplating killing herself. To be brutal, once the call had ended, I didn’t really have any strong feelings about it. People have told me that that is the only way to be when listening to other people’s grief but I do sometimes feel a bit heartless. Nothing seems to be as bad as losing my parents.

On the other hand, I’m guessing that nothing compares to the death of a son or daughter. My parents were 79 and 83, so it was not exactly a surprise when they died, even if it was a shock. But to lose a child seems unbelievably cruel and devastating. Steve Earle’s son, Justin Townes (J.T.) Earle died on 20th August 2020 from an accidental overdose of fentanyl-laced cocaine. He was 38 years old and had released eight albums between 2007 and 2019.

Steve Earle has been married seven times. Justin Townes Earle’s mother was Carol-Anne Hunter; Steve Earle left her when Justin Townes Earle was two years old. In 2012, Justin Townes Earle told an interviewer that he believes his mother is still deeply in love with his father. Justin Townes Earle started using drugs when he was 12 years old and went into rehab nine times. He was a member of Steve Earle’s band but was fired by his father when his drug and alcohol misuse affected his performance. Steve Earle spent two months in prison in 1994 for possession of cocaine and heroin and also for misuse of a weapon. In 1996, his son came to live with him and stole his gun, refusing to tell his father where he had hidden it. It was only when Steve Earle drove him to a bitterly cold camp in a forest, abandoning him with only a phone, that he confessed to where he had put it.

Steve Earle has recorded 21 studio albums and six live albums. Three of these have been tribute albums. In 2009, he released an album called Townes which consisted of 15 songs written and recorded by Townes Van Zandt, who had been a mentor to Steve Earle when he first moved to Nashville. Townes Van Zandt was addicted to heroin and alcohol throughout his adult life which gives new meaning to the word “mentor” and the irony of Justin Townes Earle being named after him is too sad to contemplate. Townes Van Zandt died in 1997.

In 2019, Steve Earle released an album called “Guy” which consisted of 16 songs written and sung by Guy Clark. He was a songwriter who organised Steve Earle’s first job in Nashville and who died in 2016.

I must confess to knowing very little about the work of Justin Townes Earle, but listening to his father’s interpretations of ten of his songs on this wonderfully entertaining album, I feel a need to explore some of his work.

“I Don’t Care” is an uplifting fast-paced two minute opener to the album. Steve Earle is backed by his band, the Dukes, which includes Chris Masterson on guitar and piano and Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, mandolin and keyboards. These two release great albums as The Mastersons. The song is sung from the point of view of a homeless guy, begging for money, hoping to escape to another town. Steve Earle’s voice is, possibly, the best rock’n’roll voice. He slurs and emotes, but above all, he sings. The downbeat nature of the lyrics belie the jolly atmosphere of the music. It’s a fantastic song which Justin Townes Earle introduced in 2008 by saying it was inspired by Woody Guthrie.

The second song is “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” and there’s a marvellous video of Justin Townes Earle playing this with his father in New York in 2015. The song is about a self-confessed bad man who feels his girl deserves better so he’s leaving without regrets.

“Maria” is a song about losing the affections of a long term partner. He still loves her but she has lost interest.

The best song on the album (in my opinion) is “Far Away In Another Town” which tells the story of someone whose relationship has come to an end. He may as well move to another town – he can be as lonely there as anywhere. It’s a sad, soulful, deeply moving song, with amazing guitar work from Chris Masterton, which Steve Earle sang beautifully on the Jimmy Kimmel Show in January 2021. Much more up-tempo is “They Killed John Henry” which is an updated version of the traditional song “John Henry”.

In 2008, Justin Townes Earle introduced “Turn Out My Lights” as being “about the most devastating feeling on the face of the earth.” Although he told the audience that they could decide what that is, it’s clearly another song about the end of a relationship and how the one who is left behind can’t sleep, feeling nothing but emptiness, despair and sorrow.

“Lone Pine Hill” is about a Confederate soldier from Virginia who becomes disillusioned in the waning days of the war and longs to return home to his sweetheart. Steve Earle’s version rocks more than his son’s live version.

Justin Townes Earle spoke about “Champagne Corolla” saying that he had a teacher when he was in “2nd grade who had a Champagne color Corolla that stuck in my head. I remember asking/telling her that her car is pink and she said ‘No, it’s champagne.’ That stuck with me years later for some reason, probably one of the only things that stuck with me from her class.” The song is a bit of a relief from all the sadness of the other songs on this album.

“The Saint Of Lost Causes” is the title track from Justin Townes Earle’s last album and he described the song as “a warning to everybody” because “if you put the underclass down, they will bite back“. It’s a majestic song and Steve Earle’s version is truly menacing with a half sung/half spoken delivery.

“Harlem River Blues” is a moving song about someone who is about to kill himself to relieve himself of all the pain. Steve Earle called his son J.T. but when he was young, he called him “Cowboy”. In this live version, he signs off by saying “See you when I get there, cowboy”.

“Last Words” was written by Steve Earle and doesn’t hold back in the grief that he feels about his son. It celebrates the good times that they had together but also apologises for all the hurt he may have caused. Not an easy song to listen to and about as emotional as it gets. Watching the live performance of this song makes me wonder how it’s possible for Steve Earle to get through this performance without breaking down. In the sleevenotes, he writes. “I made this record, like every other record I’ve ever made….for me. It was the only way I knew to say goodbye.”

The royalties from this album are to be placed into a trust for Justin Townes Earle’s daughter, Etta St. James.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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