When Justin Townes Earle died at 38 in 2020, the Americana world was robbed of one of its brightest talents, a songwriter able to distill sadness, aspiration, and an undercurrent of alienation into vibrant, well-crafted folk songs. On Wednesday night in Nashville, those songs were brought back to vivid life during a year-delayed tribute concert to Justin.
Originally scheduled for last year on what would have been Justin’s 40th birthday but bumped until 2023 because of a surge in the pandemic, A Celebration of Justin Townes Earle gathered some of the artist’s contemporaries, collaborators, and those he admired onstage at the Ryman Auditorium. Emmylou Harris, Lilly Hiatt, Elizabeth Cook, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Amanda Shires, and Jason Isbell all took the stage. So did Steve Earle, who organized the concert in his son’s memory and reunited his group the Dukes as the house band.
Earle, the irascible leader of Nashville’s Great Credibility Scare of the late Eighties, introduced each performer with a few words. Of Isbell and Shires, who performed separately, he said they were essential to the night’s lineup. Buddy Miller, he praised as the greatest living country singer. And he credited Shooter Jennings, the son of Waylon Jennings, with making him aware of the struggles Justin faced growing up in the shadow of a famous father.
The performers offered their own memories too. Jennings spoke about living in New York during the same time as Justin and then sang “Workin’ for the MTA,” off Justin’s high-water mark, the 2010 album Harlem River Blues. Isbell, having trouble with his electric guitar before his reading of “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” quipped that Justin would have chastised him for not playing an acoustic. Songwriter Joe Pug, meanwhile, spoke volumes in what he left out: during his stunning rendition of “Mama’s Eyes,” Pug, visibly wrought, couldn’t finish the line “I still see wrong from right.”
For the most part, Earle remained stoic during his performances of Justin’s “Far Away in Another Town,” “The Saint of Lost Causes,” and a group finale of “Harlem River Blues.” The Ryman audience, however, did not. Many in the auditorium were wiping away tears when Earle closed the night with a solo acoustic version of “Last Words,” the song he wrote for Justin after his death.
“Last thing I said was, ‘I love you,’” Earle sang as the final lines of the evening, “and your last words to me were, ‘I love you too.’”
Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, “Yuma”
Bonnie Whitmore, “Maria”
Dustin Welch, “Down on Lower Eastside”
Willy and Cody Braun (Reckless Kelly), “Maybe a Moment”
Lilly Hiatt, “White Gardenias”
Scotty Melton, “Rogers Park”
Ben Nichols (Lucero), “Memphis in the Rain”
Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Learning to Cry”
Joe Pug, “Mama’s Eyes”
Elizabeth Cook, “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This”
Jon Langford, “Poor Fool”
Buddy Miller, “Lone Pine Hill”
Emmylou Harris, “One More Night in Brooklyn”
Jason Isbell, “Slippin’ and Slidin’”
Amanda Shires, “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving”
Shooter Jennings, “Workin’ for the MTA”
Steve Earle, “Far Away in Another Town,” “The Saint of Lost Causes,” “Harlem River Blues,” “Last Words”