Justin Townes Earle’s Widow Speaks Out Against Jason Isbell’s “Extremely Painful” Song About Him

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Justin Townes Earle’s Widow Speaks Out Against Jason Isbell’s “Extremely Painful” Song About Him


Jason Isbell was once good friends with his fellow alt-country singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, though they were estranged in the years leading up to Earle’s death in 2020. Isbell memorialized Earle on the song “When We Were Close” from last year’s Weathervanes. The song, which is informed by Isbell and Earle’s shared struggle with addiction, has featured in Isbell’s album campaign, including a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. It turns out Earle’s family is not happy about it.

As Rolling Stone points out, Earle’s widow, Jenn Marie Earle, shared a statement on Instagram Saturday strongly criticizing Isbell’s song. Titled “Thoughts on a ‘tribute song’ and what should be considered,” the message blasts Isbell for not giving the Earle family a heads up about the song before releasing it. It lambasts Isbell for mentioning Jenn and her daughter Etta in the lyrics alongside a description of Justin’s death, noting their “strong, visceral, and extremely painful reaction” to the song. It pushes back against Isbell’s assertion that the song “[had] to exist.”

The message clearly comes from a place of deep hurt and anger. Here’s the full text:

We understand that Jason Isbell’s song “When We Were Close” may not have 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 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 its release last June.

If you are not familiar, here are the specific lyrics to the song that are 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.

Not only did we 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 just 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 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 led 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 tribute songs to Justin with us. There have been such beautiful, heart-felt songs created in his honor, so we know the difference between 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 consolation at least.

– Jenn Marie Earle

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