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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 01/20/23 – Tribute to Another Great One Gone

In the first week of January, Julie and I watched the JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE Tribute Show webcast from the historic Ryman Auditorium. The show was hosted by his father, the legendary Steve Earle. It included musicians Shooter Jennings, Amanda Shires, Buddy Miller, Ben Nichols (Lucero), Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell and many others. It was an emotional event. As noted by Rolling Stone, when Justin 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. His music was often on my play lists. He wrote and performed in a way no one else was.

It was a concert that hit home for so many reasons. Music has always been important to me and a huge part of my recovery. I have watched a lot of the musicians whose work I love struggle with the same thing I did. At one point, I was afraid of live music early in the recovery and that concerts would be a risk for me. The first concert I ever went to in recovery was with a recovering friend who was a few years older than I. He asked me if I wanted to go with him and some friends to a concert at Lehigh University, at which I got to see Miles Davis perform. It was in 1987 when I was just realizing I could have fun and enjoy things in recovery. I learned that live music was even better in recovery.

As we watched the concert a few weeks ago, hosted by his father and friends, trying to perform through their own emotions of loss, it stood out for me as an example of how one more addiction related death and its impact so many people. I have lost a lot of friends in this way as well, and the concert in many ways paid homage for all those heart-breaking deaths. While the losses have mounted, the one thing that has changed is that people are being more open about them and not hiding in shame. If nothing else, the world is beginning to see that people who die in this way are loved and that we should treat their passing as we would any other loss.

Julie and I saw personally met Justin was at a small venue in Philadelphia, The North Star. I looked up the show, the date was July 14, 2007. I remember that Justin opened for Jason Isbell, both relatively unknown artists at the time. It was a $10 ticket and we saw four acts. We had no idea at the time who JTE was, but he played an incredible acoustic set. It was so early in his career he was manning his own merch table, and handed us his first CD, YUMA. He was softspoken humble and he seemed genuinely surprised that we wanted to buy his CD. It was and still is amazing. I remember walking by him as we left the show. He was standing on the corner outside, alone, smoking. In the tribute, Jason said he was so poor at this time that Justin bought him the suit he got married in. A generous man as well.

What a fitting venue for the tribute. He was honored on the most venerable stage. The Ryman was originally built as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in the late 1800s. It became country music’s main stage in the ‘50s and ‘60s as the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Now, as the birthplace of over a century of modern music’s defining moments, it’s one of the most celebrated venues in the world.

We saw Justin a second time in 2018. He was amazing but he also seemed distant. Two years later, on August 20, 2020, Earle died of an accidental in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, at the age of 38. I know about addiction from a few perspectives, including my own life, from grappling with addiction in people I love and as a professional. It is an age-old story, and it is not one that has a simple cause or solution, if it did, we would have solved it generations ago.

There are many reasons people become addicted, if anyone tells you they know the one true cause, know they are wrong. It is a complex condition for which we seek simple answers. From a lifetime in recovery working with people, I have seemed that some, particularly creative people who are very sensitive are like microphones turned up to Spinal tap 11. It is a gift and a curse. Abraham Lincoln spoke about this phenomenon of addiction being an affliction of our most talented, and Mercedes McCambridge later spoke his words from the dais in Congress on May, 8th 1976.

I don’t know how Steve Earle got through the tribute. He sung my favorite JTE song Far Away in Another Town and right after that, everyone did the finale song Harlem River Blues. The show ended with Steve alone on the stage, with his guitar singing a song he wrote for his son titled "Last Words.” It was powerful and raw and from the heart. He has been open about his own recovery, and the words ring true for so many families. I usually keep these posts to a page but have decided to post a link to Last Words and the full lyrics below.

I am grateful we got to meet Justin and to see his tribute concert, and for all the artists that showed up to honor him and his work. Grateful that a number of people on and off that stage found their way to recovery and that we get to see where their recovery story leads. Grateful we are in a place and time we can openly honor those we have lost, many among the brightest stars that shined all too briefly.

What are you grateful for today?

Steve Earle & The Dukes – “Last Words

I was there when you were born

Took you from your momma's arms

Stood in awe, a witness to

The first breath that you ever drew

I wish I could have held you when

You left this world like I did then

Last time we spoke was on the phone

And we hung up and now you're gone

Last thing I said was, "I love you"

And your last words to me were, "I love you too"

I don't know why you hurt so bad

Just know you did, it makes me sad

Said everything I meant to say

Could not make it go away

Wherever you are traveling now

It doesn't matter anyhow

Can't help but wonder if you knew

You took a part of me with you

Last thing I said was, "I love you"

And your last words to me were, "I love you too"

You made me laugh, you made me cry

Showed me truth, you told me lies

Tore my heart apart and then

You brought me back the piece again

Now I don't know what I'll do

Until the day I follow you

Through the darkness to the light

'Cause I loved you for all your life

Last thing I said was, "I love you"

And your last words to me were, "I love you too"

I love you too

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