Singer and songwriter Justin Townes Earle passed away early last week at the age of 38. The death of the accomplished performer and son of Steve Earle has left many in the roots music world reeling. Though we have no official confirmation on how Justin Townes Earle died at this point, and won’t for a while as the Medical Examiners Office continues to investigate the case, Metro Nashville police have preliminarily determined it was a probable drug overdose.
This potential prognosis makes a moment captured by photographer, videographer, and folklorist Dan Schram out of Greensboro, North Carolina that much more poignant, potent, and important to share.
On May 30th, 2018, Justin Townes Earle stopped in Raleigh, North Carolina to perform at Stag’s Head, with Lily Hiatt opening the show. Dan Schram has just released the entirety of the Justin Townes Earle concert in Raleigh that recorded with permission (see below). Not only is the concert itself worth seeing (and graciously cut up into segments by Schram), the moment when Earle is introducing his ode to Billie Holiday called “White Gardenias” makes for a moment everyone who is trying to reason with the death of Justin Townes Earle, or trying to reason with someone who may be struggling with addiction should hear.
In the context of addressing the greater opioid crisis, Justin Townes Earle said:
We’re never gonna solve this shit, but what we can do is do the best for those around us who we know who have a problem. And the best you can do for them—and I mean literally this sounds sad, like ‘Really, that’s the best you can do?’ But no, as somebody who shot heroin for 13 f–king years, and has been off it since I’ve been 22-years-old, I’m now 36. The best you can do for somebody who has a problem like that is to realize that for so long we’ve looked at them and said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And that’s a dumbass, ignorant, uneducated, insulting question to ask anybody. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ If you walk up to me and ask me, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you?’ I’m probably gonna knock your f–king teeth down your throat.
So the best thing we can do for people that have these problems is realize that there’s nobody who wakes up in the morning, puts on their Quaker Oats, cranks up their radio to ‘Walking On Sunshine,’ then goes to the bathroom and f–king shoots up. Alright? So obviously, they hurt. So you ask them, ‘Why do you hurt?’ That’s it. I mean that’s the best we can do. Maybe you get to what is wrong after that. But you know, like think about it. They’re not doing because they’re happy shiny f—king people and because the world’s been good to them.
Billie Holiday is one of my favorite singers. My favorite singer. And I wrote this next song for her. And for selfish reasons I do wish somebody would’ve just looked at her and maybe said, ‘Why do you hurt?’ And maybe we just possibly we could’ve gotten something more out of Lady Day than we did.
Many people are now asking if we could have gotten something more from Justin Townes Earle. Often when someone passes away due to addiction, people question why friends and family didn’t do more to help save them. But these questions rarely come from people who’ve fought to bring an addict back from the brink themselves. They know that you can do everything in your power, and still lose. How to reach them and have them listen to you is often the hardest part.
Justin Townes Earle spoke openly and in detail about his own battles with addiction, both on the stage, in interviews, and through his music. We can’t bring Justin Townes Earle back. But we can all learn from the lessons he left us with.
(Justin speaks on addiction at the 54:52 mark)