Justin Townes Earle’s Widow Clarifies Concerns with Jason Isbell Song

photo: Phillip Nelson

On Friday, April 12th, the widow of Americana singer and songwriter Justin Townes Earle took to social media to let her thoughts be known about the song “When We Were Close,” written and performed by Jason Isbell on his latest album Weathervanes. The song is meant partly as a tribute, and partly as Isbell processing through the survivor’s guilt of losing someone who he once was close friends with, but was estranged from when Justin Townes Earle passed away from an accidental overdose in 2020.

Jenn Marie Earle explained how Isbell never reached out to her about the song, and has also not reached out or responded to her since the song’s release in June of 2023, despite reaching out to Isbell to address her concerns. Along with other issues with “When We Were Close,” Earle takes special exception to the 3rd verse of the song, which makes reference to Earle’s now six year old daughter Etta.

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 your stuff
That left you on the bathroom tiles

According to Jenn Marie Earle, when Etta heard the line, she realized it was about herself and was emotionally traumatized by it. For ten months, Jenn Marie tried to handle the matter privately, only positing about it upon occasion via her private Instagram profile. But when a quote from a recent panel interview with Jason Isbell at Ohio University emerged about the song, Jenn Marie Earle chose to take her grievance public.

On Monday (4-15), Jenn Marie Earle reached out to Saving Country Music to clarify some of the misconceptions about her concerns with “When We Were Close,” and how they’ve been unfairly characterized by some.

When asked if Jason Isbell had ever addressed the matter or answered Jenn Marie’s messages about the song, she confirmed, “Not at all.”

One criticism that Jenn Marie Earle has faced from those who read her statement is why she would even play the song for a six year old child, especially due to the graphic nature of the third verse. When pressed on this point by Saving Country Music, Jenn Marie Earle explained that after being notified of the song’s release via social media, she listened to the song the first time with Etta.

“I started getting tagged on social media, and that’s how I found out about it,” Earle explains. “I wanted to listen to it with her, because I thought it would be beautiful and we love [Jason Isbell] music. When I first heard the song, that’s how Etta heard it. I said, ‘Jason wrote a song about your daddy, let’s listen.’ And Etta’s so incredibly smart. She has her father’s brain. She memorizes songs after hearing them once. She knew right away that the kid that was mentioned in the song was her, and that guy on the floor was him, and she f–king lost it.”

Earle continues, “When she cried about it, I wrote [Isbell] a long message saying ‘I have a little girl in the car crying right now because of your song.” Isbell never responded.

Jenn Marie Earle also claimed in her statements that since the release of “When We Were Close,” she’s felt almost pursued by the song. Despite knowing how she felt about it, Isbell chose it as the opening song of his tour after the release of Weathervanes. He performed it on Jimmy Kimmel in October of 2023, resulting in more people tagging the Justin Townes Earle social media accounts with links to the video, bringing up the issue yet again.

Jason Isbell officially released “When We Were Close” as a radio single, which meant the song would come on often when Jenn Marie Earle and Etta were riding in the car listening to music together.

“It comes on the radio a bunch,” Jenn Marie says. “We would listen to XM because her daddy comes on it. I post about it whenever they play him. And we get to hear Papa [Steve Earle] talk and stuff. And it comes on so much there now. Early on she would say, ‘Mom, I want to listen to that song. I want to hear it again.’ Now, she doesn’t want to listen to this song. She doesn’t like that she was mentioned, and she’s even said that. I haven’t willingly played it for her. She knows how her father died. She doesn’t fully understand drugs, but she knows about him having a disease, and putting something in his body that stopped his heart.”

Some have questioned Earle’s characterization that the song keeps coming on the radio. Isbell tracks like the Grammy-nominated “King of Oklahoma” or the Grammy-winning “Cast Iron Skillet” are considered the more popular songs from Weathervanes. But according to the radio single tracking service CDX and the Americana Music Association, “When We Were Close” was the most-played song on the Americana radio format in 2023, which includes the Sirius/XM Outlaw channel.

According to a press release dated December 13th, 2023 for the Americana Music Association, “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit top the Americana Music Association’s year-end Top 100 Americana Radio Airplay Charts of 2023. Isbell and the 400 Unit’s album ‘Weathervanes’ secured the #1 spot on the Americana Radio Airplay Albums Chart and Americana Radio Airplay Singles Chart with ‘When We Were Close’ for the most spins for the year. This data reflects records reported to the Americana Radio Airplay Albums and Singles Charts (powered by CDX) during the period of Jan. 10, 2023 through Dec. 12, 2023.”

“When We Were Close” beat of Charley Crockett’s “I’m Just A Clown” to secure the #1 spot in 2023, despite the consumption of “When We Were Close” being less that others tracks from Weathervanes that were not selected as singles. So when Jenn Marie characterized the song coming on her radio “a bunch,” she was not embellishing.

“[Isbell] was well aware of how I felt, and not that I’m the most important person in the world, but if he had any kind of heart and knew that, he wouldn’t be pushing it so hard. And then he submitted it to the Grammys,” Jenn Maire Earle says.

The concern with “When We Were Close” has stimulated deep discussions about creative license, and where artists should draw a line or proceed with extra caution when writing about true-to-life or living subjects. Jenn Marie Earle herself has said on numerous occasions, including in a video she posted shortly after her original statement that “It has nothing to do with me thinking that I should be able to control what he’s able to share. But once he mentioned my daughter and myself in the song, it took it to a different level.”

Jenn Marie Earle did confirm to Saving Country Music that even though Isbell did not reach out to her to either get her blessing to record the song or even a heads up that it was being released, Isbell did reach out to Justin Townes Earle’s father, performer Steve Earle.

“When I asked Steve about it, he hadn’t heard it. He just approved it. I don’t think any of Steve’s family have really full acknowledged this song. I don’t know the specific details, but I do know it happened without [Steve] knowing the actual content of the song.”

When Jenn Marie reach out to Steve, she says, “He told me to leave it and not pay attention to it, that he hadn’t heard the song or the words, but he had given it his blessing.”

Jenn Marie Earle also takes issue with more specific things in the song, saying the details are inaccurate.

“Justin died on a wood floor. But [Isbell] is so on the nose, he probably needed a word that rhymed with similes (the song mentions Earle died on ’tiles’). He didn’t die in the bathroom.”

Jenn Marie also said that Justin Townes Earle never hired anyone to dress him as the song implies. “I think it’s funny that Jason thinks that someone dressed Justin. He rolled out of bed with style. He didn’t need anyone to dress him.”

At the time of Justin Townes Earle’s death, he was living in an apartment in Nashville while Jenn Marie was in Utah visiting her father. The arrangement was only supposed to be temporary through COVID as Justin’s tours kept getting cancelled. It was being cooped up in an apartment when things began to turn dark for Justin, and his issues with addiction once again came to the forefront.

Jenn Marie Earle says that days before Justin Townes Earle was discovered, she knew something was wrong because Earle wasn’t answering his phone and their debit card wasn’t being charged. But since she wasn’t in Tennessee, she couldn’t by law give the order to break down Justin’s door to check on him. When they finally did break down the door, Justin was found dead in the living room. He was 38 years old.

But the specific details of “When We Were Close” that Jenn Marie Earle broaches are only part of her concern. Aside from posts on her private Instagram account, Earle had kept quiet about her issues with the song for 10 months, trying to resolve it with Isbell privately to no avail.

“It’s a measure of character,” Jenn Marie Earle says. “Can you be decent? Can you be human? And he’s proven over and over again that he just can’t. He cherry picked that song, and I’m the only one who’d said that this bothers me. Nobody else has really spoken out about it. Basic courtesy, basic humanness is all I expect. I feel sorry that I blew it up on social media, but I felt like I had no choice.”

The matter was brought to a head when Isbell brought up “When We Were Close” and the “victims” of the song at the Music Industry Summit at Ohio University on April 10th. You can see the moment at the 6:28:00 mark of the video below.

“That was just the last straw for me,” Jenn Marie Earle says. “When he said, ‘I’ll mention this now because I don’t want it to come back up,’ that just lit me up. You’re the one that just brought it up, and it’s going to come up again. Now I’m going to talk about it because I’ve been biting my tongue, and turning down the radio for 10 months.'”

Similar issues dealing with the creative license of songwriters and how songs can affect others came up recently when the potential muse for multiple Turnpike Troubadours songs named “Lorrie” spoke out. She too felt pursued by the songs, officially deciding to go public after hearing one of the songs being played at a Wal-Mart.

Others have brought up the case of Taylor Swift writing songs about ex-boyfriends, and how it would be unreasonable to expect her to gain permission or to notify these ex’s of the songs.

However, there are instances where lyrics have been altered in future performances or versions. Gordon Lightfoot augmented the words to “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to make sure the victims of the famous shipwreck wouldn’t be misunderstood as being responsible for it. Taylor Swift changed the lyrics to her song “Better Than Revenge” for her “Taylor’s Version” of her album Speak Now after she was accused of “slut shaming” the subject of the song.

There are other more recent examples of tribute songs about deceased individuals that were well-received by the survivors. In 2018, Brent Cobb released a song called “King of Alabama” about country artist Wayne Mills who was murdered in Nashville in 2013. Cobb co-wrote the song with Adam Hood, and they decided to give Wayne’s young son Jack a songwriting credit on the song, that way Jack would receive royalties from it over time.

Songwriter Pat Reedy recently released the song “Should You Ever” that he wrote for Luke Bell, who similarly to Justin Townes Earle, died of an accidental fentanyl overdose. The song was well-received by Luke’s friends and family.

“I believe if the tables had been turned and Justin had written a song about Isbell’sr passing, it would have been so eloquent and wouldn’t have even mentioned dying and would have gotten the point across without leaving your family members in tears of shock and sadness, rather, perhaps some joy in the beautiful remembrance,'” Jenn Marie Earle says. “And I truly believe that.”

What comes across starkly when speaking to Jenn Marie Earle is that despite the pain Justin put her through during their marriage, she remains loyal to Justin, and sees it as her job to protect his legacy.

“I’ve got a lot of heart, and I’ve got a lot of sympathy for anyone who remained friends with Justin through the hard times, because I know how hard it was. And I actually thought that his death might bring us all together in the end when we could say, ‘Wasn’t he a light?’ While also saying, ‘F–k the dark. That was so hard.'”

Jenn Marie Earles continues,

“You have no idea what it’s like to go through what I went through, and still decide that I am going to stand beside my man because I didn’t want to abandon him. And I didn’t want to give up on him. He put me through hell. But I loved him until the day he died, and I did not give up on him or our relationship. No one else did that in his life, but I did. And Justin knew it.

Justin left me in debt, but I’m not out for money. The only thing I wanted was consideration, before putting out the song, but especially afterwards after it was known how I felt about it. That’s the part that I have a problem with. I don’t expect anything. I don’t want to censor Jason Isbell. I don’t want to control him. I think I’ve made it very clear that’s not what I’m out for, but of course that’s how people make it out.

I’m standing up for my husband who can’t speak for himself. I’m standing up for my daughter and I who are mentioned, obviously not by name, but mentioned in a song that was obviously about my husband. I’m not making something out of nothing here. It is something.

This is my job. I don’t get paid for it, but it’s my job. I married this amazing man, and I will forever celebrate him, forever stick up for him. I’m it, and then there’s Etta. And I will forever celebrate him and stand up for him because I know he wouldn’t appreciate this song.”

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Saving Country Music reached out through both management and publicity contacts to the Jason Isbell camp for comment, clarification, or a statement on the matter. Those requests were not returned by the time of this article.

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