Some say that life flashes before our eyes in the instant before death, but if you listen to Justin Townes Earle, maybe it’s just one thought in particular: you should have called your mother more. So says the video for “Call Ya Momma” off of Absent Fathers, premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country. The song, like many on the record and its precursor, Single Mothers, explores the weight, burden and dangerous comfort of parents and parenthood; like the antagonist in the clip, no one can gift that unique combination of life and misery quite like mom and dad.
“For me music videos are opportunities to make little movies,” director Andrew Van Baal tells Rolling Stone Country, “and Justin’s song was a perfect soundtrack for a Western twist on Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
The 1980 short story opens just as the video: a man, with his toes desperately grabbing at the lip of a stool that is the only thing holding him between life and death, strung up to a tree branch by a noose. We don’t quite know if he’s being unjustly punished or paying penance — but, like the complicated nature of family dynamics, nothing is ever quite black and white. We then flash back to his childhood, taking comfort in the arms of his mother, whom he then envisions rescuing him from the ropes – but soon it becomes clear that maybe, despite the urge we all feel to have our parents rush in and rescue us, we can only really save ourselves. Or, in this case, lead ourselves to untimely doom.
“Don’t know why I ever thought that you could change,” Earle sings to a former lover, set to a blues-infused country shuffle. This time, “call ya momma” is a bitter-kiss off to a woman with no one left to cry to, and he spits those lyrics out like venom, with the weight of both a man scorned and a son who knows how a mother is sometimes the only one to offer forgiveness, even when we don’t really deserve it. After battling addiction, the now-married, sober son of Steve Earle can load an unexpected phrase or a string of notes with a steely, forlorn emotional punch like few others; and this song, like the video, is harsh punishment. No matter if it’s a crime of the battlefield or the heart.