When Steve Earle declared, “Goddam right, I’m emotional,” on 2020’s Ghosts of West Virginia, he had no idea the followup album would be even more so.
While such tributes are no strangers to Earle – see 2009’s Townes (Van Zandt) and 2019’ GUY (Clark) – 2021’s J.T. is an entirely different beast. Recorded in the wake of Justin Townes Earle’s 2020 overdosedeath and released digitally Jan. 4 on what should have been his 39th birthday – with physical versions to follow in March – the album is a gut punch in sound as the elder Earle records 10 of his late son’s songs and one – “Last Words” – of his own.
JTE’s gospel-tinged suicide note “Harlem River Blues” – “Tell my mama I love her, tell my daddy I tried,” Daddy sings – is the penultimate track and the final cover.
“I know the difference between tempting and choosing my fate,” the elder Earle sings before addressing his boy directly.
“Last Words” recalls Justin’s birth though his last telephone conversation with Steve. Its heavy, minor-key music hangs like a cloud:
“Last thing I said was, ‘I love you’/your last words to me were, ‘I love you, too,’” he sings as a funereal drone adds to the mourning darkness.
The album begins as Justin’s career did with 2007’s “I Don’t Care,” with Earle and the Dukes setting the front-half songs in back-porch, acoustic-based arrangements. And when fiddler Eleanor Whitmore wraps her silky harmony vocals around Earle’s gruff leads, she softens the sound of grief and of the rough-hewn band and helps give the Dukes their unique sound.
By the time the band gets to 2017’s “Champagne Corolla,” the music takes on a more rock ‘n’ roll feel with electric and steel guitars edging out acoustics and mandolin.
Made under the worst of circumstances for the best of reasons – 100 percent of proceeds go to a trust for Earle’s 3-year-old granddaughter Etta St. James Earle – J.T. is an unlikely delight. Born of grief, it nevertheless is a celebration of its namesake and his music.