Jason Isbell Criticized by Justin Townes Earle’s Widow for Song

photos: Danny Clinch / Joshua Black Wilkins

Ever since the release of Jason Isbell’s Grammy award-winning 2023 album Weathervanes, there have been concerns swirling around the song “When We Were Close” that was written as a de facto “tribute” to fellow songwriter Justin Townes Earle. The son of Steve Earle and a critically-acclaimed songwriter himself, Justin Townes Earle died on August 23rd by what the family first revealed as a drug overdose in 2020.

The rumors about the song seemed mostly concerned with how the family of Earle was blindsided by the supposed tribute, how they were given no warning that it would be released, and that the details in the song are so raw (and in parts, wrong), that it created a painful reminder of Justin’s family, especially Earle’s widow Jenn Marie Earle, and for Earle’s daughter, 6-year-old Etta.

Though Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle were friends earlier in their careers—including Earle inviting Isbell to play guitar for him during his debut on The Late Show with David Letterman—the two had a falling out. Before Isbell’s career started to take off, it was Justin Townes Earle who was considered at the forefront a new generation of Americana musicians.

Though the rumors about the concerns for “When We Were Close” were hard to verify—and the Earle family, nor Justin’s widow Jenn Marie seemed willing to speak about it publicly—it was clear there was a concern. And despite this concern being communicated to Jason Isbell himself, Isbell continued to not just perform the song, but push it forward as a primary single from Weathervanes, including promoting it to Americana radio, leading concerts off with it, and performing it on Jimmy Kimmel Live in October of 2023.

Jason Isbell addressed the song in a recent interview, and this upset Jenn Marie Earle to the point where she decided to finally speak out about it publicly. She first posted a screenshot about it to the story feed of Justin Townes Earle’s Instagram account saying, “When you make my daughter cry, and you’re heartless and this is your response … I have so much more to say.”

Then in a detailed note posted on social media, Jenn Marie Earle formally addressed her issues with Jason Isbell’s “When We Were Close.” As to not inadvertently mischaracterize or inappropriately summarize her words, the full text can be found below.

Thoughts on a “tribute song” and suggestions as to what should be considered.

We understand that Jason Isbell’s song “When We Were Close” may have not been intended to be a tribute song, per se, but I (Jenn Marie Earle, Justin’s widow) want to offer my thoughts on what I feel, personally – since both myself, and mine and Justin’s daughter, Etta, were both mentioned/referenced in the song – it is our right to share our insight and feelings about it. I also feel that, as the keeper and protector of Justin’s legacy, that it is my responsibility.

During an interview this week, Jason shared why he wrote the song (this is, to our knowledge the first time he has addressed it publicly). Here is what he said: “When We Were Close, that song was one of those where I had to say, how many victims [will there be] if I tell the truth, how many victims if I don’t. And then you make that choice. You know, because the song has to exist, you know I don’t know why but I decided on that a long time ago because that’s what I do, that’s who I am. So you know, usually if you tell the truth, you make less victims than if you don’t.”

Being the said “victims” he is speaking of, I felt that in response, it is time to share my feelings on this song, the impact it has had on us, and why we had such a strong, visceral, and extremely painful reaction to it that has continued now, almost a year later since it’s release last June.

If you are not familiar, here are the specific lyrics to the song that were the most painful (for obvious reasons):

“I saw a picture of you laughing with your child, and I hope she will remember how you smiled. But she probably wasn’t old enough, the night somebody sold you stuff that left you on the bathroom tiles. Got a picture of you dying in my mind with some ghosts you couldn’t bear to leave behind…It’s not up to me to forgive you for the nights that your love had to live through, now you’ll never need to look me in the eye.”

It is important to me for everyone to understand, that Justin and Jason were estranged (after a difficult falling out) for years before he died. Jason stating that the song “had to exist” seems very inappropriate and hard to comprehend from my viewpoint when you take that into account. Especially mentioning our daughter (a complete gut punch, something Justin would have no doubt been extremely upset about)…and then immediately following Etta’s mention with grotesque graphic details of his death that 1. were absolutely unnecessary 2. were not released to the public (and the details were incorrect) 3. that it is not “his truth” to share, being completely removed from the situation for years up to Justin’s death. It was really no one’s right except for mine, which I did share immediately following the dreadful news, at a time when I could barely think, much less handle the public, but I knew it had to be done. For his fans, and as a warning to others so that he did not pass in vain.

I did not receive a compassionate warning ahead of the song’s release (we found out about the song, when this page was tagged in posts about it the day it came out). While it’s not mandatory that he give me a heads up, considering it’s about my husband and mentions myself, and especially my daughter, it would have been a respectful thing to do, so that we weren’t completely blown apart when we heard it as it was celebrated as a new release.

Soon after, he was made aware that the song was extremely painful (an absolute trauma trigger) and we hoped the message was taken to heart (although he did not acknowledge it) and we hoped to move on and try to forget about it. However, we learned (due to being tagged in posts, etc) that he was opening most shows with it, and then to our complete shock he chose it as the song to play on Jimmy Kimmel on the first show back after the writer’s strike, undoubtedly to a massive audience – putting the song front and center. ‹That was one of the most painful moments following, because it was clear then that he did not care that this song was traumatizing to Justin’s loved ones and was actually pushing the song above all of the others on the album. He could have chosen any other song.

Also, on top of this, he is profiting off of it which I don’t think I need to go into why I have such strong negative feelings about that.

Since that time, I, as well as others have reached out to him personally, in an emotional plea to try to make him understand the trauma it has forced on our daughter (she has asked to hear it and it has lead to moments that I can’t bear to share), something she will deal with for the rest of her life. He has not responded, and then made the aforementioned statement, making it clear that he understands there are living, breathing victims. One of which is our innocent daughter.

Also, I want to take this opportunity to thank the many people all around the world that have shared their tribute songs to Justin with us. There have been such beautiful, heart-felt songs created in his honor, so we know the difference between what Jason wrote and what a real tribute looks like, because none of the others have kept us up at night or sent our daughter into tears. He did not have to write this song, it did not have to exist, but if he really felt that it was necessary, a heads up beforehand would have been greatly appreciated. Also, even though he has finally acknowledged that there are “victims,” he has still not so much as texted me an apology and I just can’t wrap my head around why someone wouldn’t extend that simple and small act of kindness. We deserve that at the very least. We’ve been through the unimaginable and certainly didn’t need this on top of it, but an apology would have been some sort of consolation at least.

– Jenn Marie Earle

As a follow up, Jenn Marie Earle also posted a video on Instagram.

As Jenn Marie Earle underscores, the issue isn’t just about the way Jason Isbell wrote “When We Were Close.” It’s about how Isbell seemingly refuses to address the issue with the Earle family, while also pushing the song to the forefront of his catalog despite the controversy, or perhaps, because of it.

Meanwhile, Isbell continues to benefit from fawning, sometimes outright obsequious press coverage that never mentions his broken friendships with people like Justin Townes Earle, the failure of his first marriage to former Drive-By Truckers bass player Shonna Tucker and the behaviors that led to it, or the severely judgemental and decidedly illiberal presence Jason Isbell takes on social media.

Instead, Isbell is canonized in puff pieces, including the one composed by Marissa R. Moss and published to coincide with Grammy voting last October titled “The Radical Empathy of Jason Isbell,” which stand in stark contrast with personal accounts of Isbell’s behavior from Jenn Marie Earle, Shonna Tucker, and others. Isbell is currently going through a divorce with fellow performer and songwriter Amanda Shires.

What most everyone agrees on, including Jenn Marie Earle, is that Jason Isbell is a brilliant songwriter. Another track from the Weathervanes album called “King of Oklahoma” was Saving Country Music’s 2023 Song of the Year. The song was also nominated for Best American Roots Performance for the 2024 Grammy Awards. Isbell ended up winning the Best American Roots Song Grammy for “Cast Iron Skillet,” and Weathervanes won for Best Americana Album in 2024.

The brilliance of Jason Isbell the songwriter is hard to deny. But while the media regularly praises Isbell for his positive attributes, they regularly sweep issues like the concerns with “When We Were Close” under the rug, as Isbell remains lauded, and any criticism of him is commonly considered verboten.

This story has been updated.

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