It was hard not to think of Hank Williams when Justin Townes Earle — who died this week at 38 — made his network-television debut on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2011. Dressed in a crisp brown suit and bowtie, and bending his well-over-six-foot frame into the microphone, the then-29-year-old sang with haunting conviction about putting old ghosts and troubled days well behind him. So confident in his newfound state of grace was Earle, that heaven just had to let him in — and he was going to test his theory by drowning himself in the Harlem River.
“When you see me walkin’ up the FDR, just a-singin’ and a-clappin’ my hands/tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried, give my money to my baby to spend,” Earle sang in celebration.
“Harlem River Blues,” the title track to his 2011 album, was Earle at his most spiritual. It was modern-day gospel, delivered by a guy who had seen some shit. He had been living in New York since 2008 and he took to the city and its culture, even writing an entire song about the subway system, the forlorn “Workin’ for the MTA.” When he set foot on Letterman’s stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, he may have looked like a throwback country boy from 1940s Nashville, but he had the unbridled electricity of New York City coursing through his veins.
With the Late Show‘s Paul Shaffer on organ, two backup vocalists singing harmony, and no less than Jason Isbell on guitar (making his own Letterman debut), Earle’s performance was transcendent in its rootsiness, even for a series that prided itself as a haven for such sounds. The normally aloof Letterman himself seemed elated. “Come back often,” he offered.
The songwriter would return the following year, singing “Look the Other Way” off 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. But it’s Earle’s “Harlem River Blues” that stands as his most magnetic TV performance. For those three minutes and change, it was impossible to not believe in redemption.