Music | January 29, 2021 7:04 am

Steve Earle’s Tribute Album for His Son Isn’t for Any of Us to Judge

When it comes to an album about an artist mourning his dead son, maybe we should skip the numerical rating?

steve earle
Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle
Robin Marchant/Getty Images

When Steve Earle unleashed his new album JT, a covers record of songs by his late son Justin Townes Earle, earlier this month, the rollout looked in some ways to be similar to that of any other big release by the legendary singer-songwriter: late-night TV performances, an interview with The New York Times, and, of course, plenty of album reviews.

Though they’re no doubt helpful under normal circumstances for readers looking to learn a little more about what an album sounds like before they buy it, given the context here, a review — of any kind, but especially a negative one — seems crass. Middling ones somehow seem comical: Pitchfork recently gave JT a 7.6, while Under the Radar gave it a 7.0. Earle recorded the album after his son, who had publicly struggled with addiction for many years, died of an accidental overdose of cocaine laced with fentanyl on Aug. 20 of last year, less than six months ago. So these ratings read a little bit like, “Ho hum, just another record by a country legend about burying his son who died of the same addiction issues he himself battled for years.” How do you rate someone on their grief?

Earle has said that recording an album of his late son’s songs was a way to work through the unimaginable loss in a way that “wasn’t cathartic as much as it was therapeutic” — and do it on his own terms. “I did not want to be asked to be on a tribute record with several people that I thought absolutely were enablers and helped kill him,” he told the Times earlier this month. “So I thought the way to nip that in the bud was to make a record of my own.” “I made the record because I needed to,” he added. (Proceeds from the album will go into a trust for Justin’s young daughter, Etta.) It’s clear that this is not an album that was made with any particular concern for what we, the listeners, happen to think about it; it’s an entirely personal exercise to help him come to terms with the tragedy of losing his son to the very same disease that he struggled with for many years. We should consider ourselves lucky to even be allowed to hear such a difficult thing. How dare we try to decide whether or not he did it “the right way”?

Of course, an album like JT is a curiosity, and there’s plenty that fans will be eager to hear about, like how true to his son’s original arrangements Earle stays, which songs he chose to include, etc. Given their at-times-fraught relationship — there are many early Justin Townes Earle interviews in which he calls his father, who spent much of his childhood on the road, a deadbeat dad, though the two eventually reconciled — that makes sense. It is notable that Earle focuses almost entirely on Justin’s earlier material, steering clear of anything from his Absent Fathers (2015) and Single Mothers (2014) albums, which address their complicated family dynamic. That may feel like a cop-out to some, particularly to those who consider those emotionally raw records to be among Justin’s finest work, but can we really blame him for not wanting to open up those old wounds for our entertainment? The guy just buried his son; how can we expect him to torture himself with an attempt at covering “Mama’s Eyes,” a song in which Justin recounts all the neuroses and bad habits he inherited from his father before taking comfort in the fact that, at the very least, he has his mother’s eyes and isn’t entirely like the elder Earle? To criticize Earle for choosing to focus on the songs by his dead son that would be the least painful to sing feels perverse.

The album also includes one original, “Last Words,” written about the final phone conversation that the two had on the day Justin died. (“Last time we spoke was on the phone/And we hung up and now you’re gone,” Earle sings. “Last thing I said was, ‘I love you’/And your last words to me were, ‘I love you too’”) The deeply personal track, which closes the record, is sonically simple and its lyrics are to-the-point, but it’s yet another reminder of what a remarkable thing Earle has done by pulling back the curtain and giving us a glimpse of his still-very-fresh, profound grief.

He’s granted us permission to bear witness by putting out the album, of course, but it still feels inherently gross to weigh in on how well he mourns his son or attach a numerical rating to it when it so obviously was not made for us. Earle is by no means the first musician to create a piece of art inspired by the loss of a loved one, and he certainly won’t be the last, but his case is a unique example of why it’s impossible — and in fact, kind of cruel — to really judge those types of work. Debating over whether the way Earle chose to confront his personal tragedy warrants a C+ or a C- feels a little like barging into a funeral and asking guests to rate the eulogy on a scale of one to 10. Fortunately, the music is forever, and both Earles have lengthy, impressive catalogs we can pore over and rank as we please. On this one, however, we have no business but to listen.