“When you get out there, there’s going to be this built-in audience of people that are curious to see what Steve Earle’s son is like, or what Waylon Jennings’s son is like,” Jennings said. “So there’s this bit of distrust with the audience from the very beginning. Are they here because they like my music, or are they here because they like my dad’s music?”
TO RECORD “J.T.,” Earle, with the help of his son Ian, 33, winnowed Justin’s work to a list of 10 songs — two of them, “Turn Out My Lights” and “Far Away in Another Town,” Justin wrote with Scotty Melton — and booked a week at Electric Lady Studios in New York.
He worked fast, sending his band preparatory notes by text message. By the time they began recording, Justin had been dead for less than two months. (They began sessions before Oct. 20.) Earle, who had largely avoided speaking publicly about Justin’s death, wanted the album to be his statement.
He was also wary of being roped into anyone else’s memorial.
“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,” Earle said, his words flecked with expletives. “So I thought the way to nip that in the bud was to make a record of my own.”
At this point in his career, Earle — bespectacled, with a long salt-and-pepper beard — is a Renaissance man for whom mortality and addiction have been perennial subject matter. In addition to his many albums, Earle has written a play about a woman on death row and a novel about the specter of Hank Williams, and contributed music to a recent play about a mining disaster in West Virginia. Lately he has been writing a science-fiction story intended for television.
The night before the first session for “J.T.,” Earle gathered the band at his apartment for a sushi meal. Ray Kennedy, Earle’s longtime engineer, recalls the time in Electric Lady as being celebratory but focused. They began each day at 10 a.m. and finished by 4 p.m., so that Earle could take care of his youngest son, John Henry, 10, who has autism.