A.J. Croce has been releasing albums to critical acclaim since the early 1990s. With songs that are steeped in the American traditions of New Orleans, deep blues as well as folk and pop, he has carved a unique space for himself in the musical landscape. Born to singer-songwriters Jim and Ingrid Croce in 1971, the musician had shied away from performing his father’s music until recently.
Now, his latest album, Just Like Medicine, finds him recording a previously unreleased song written by his father, as well as performing a series of concerts under the banner of A.J. Croce: Two Generations of Music. On those dates, he tells stories and plays songs written not only by himself and his dad but by those writers who influenced them both.
A.J. Croce performs at the Manhattan Arts Center in Manhattan, Kansas, on Friday, Nov. 17, and brings his Two Generations show to the McPherson Opera House in McPherson on Saturday, Nov. 18.
Jedd Beaudoin: Your new album, Just Like Medicine, features songs that are based on classic soul music but it’s not a soul record that’s trying to recapture some bygone era.
A.J. Croce: You can’t really go back in time, even though you might want to. The fascinating thing about this project is that even though we’re using a lot of players who were on those records in the ‘60s like Steve Cropper and David Hood and, of course, the producer, Dan Penn, who also co-wrote with me and had written so many soul classics, I think, those things considered, the vintage gear and all this stuff, you can’t go back in time.
My intention was to make a soulful record and incorporate those old, beautiful tones that existed back then but approach it in a new style. As far as the songwriting is concerned, there’s a facet of it that I hope is timeless, but that can also be recognized as contemporary in its way because I’m dealing with contemporary life.
I made this record to be mono because it was a recognition that we’re mostly listening to our phones and we’re listening to iPads, your computer, your laptop, or your desktop computer speakers and they’re generally pretty small and they’re not great. So, we’re kind of listening to transistor radio again. My concept was, I was going back to go forward.
Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s almost everything before that time was recorded mono and it sounded great. It sounded especially great on little speakers but it sounded great on big ones too. It was the little speakers that was it was really designed for since most people had small systems. That’s what I was considering because that’s the period we’re living in at the moment.
I work in radio. I listen to music all day long. Never in my life have I owned a high-end stereo. Because I’m of the opinion that if it sounds great on [a small system], it is great.
Yeah. I don’t know too many musicians that have high-end stereos. They might have a studio and they might have good monitors in the studio. But most people don’t listen to music casually or their record collection or stuff that they’re downloading on those speakers because they’re not going to go into the studio just to listen to music because they listen on a normal stereo.
You assembled David Hood, Dan Penn, Steve Cropper, Vince Gill for this record. At some point you must have had to make the call to get these people in. Was there any part of you that worried they’d say, “No”?
Well, that’s the thing about life, you know? If you don’t ask, you don’t know. The worst thing that anyone could say is no. It’s not like I deserve it. They’re just people and I’m calling them specifically because they have a certain talent or they have a certain or they have a certain thing that I think is going to fit into what I’m doing. It’s not without thought. I didn’t have a huge budget when I was making this. I paid for it myself.
Steve I had known for a really long time. I’ve known him since I was 17 or 18. I first came to record a session for Cowboy Jack Clement. We had a real connection. I was a huge fan of Booker T.’s. I loved his stuff.
I’ve heard, over the years, that David Hood is a guy who, although he played on all those great sessions at Muscle Shoals, he’s still interested in continuing to grow and continues to listen to new music and continues to challenge himself.
I think most of the players I called for this session and most of the players that are on all my stuff, that’s part of who they are. They’re really interested in growing and learning and exploring new styles. David was out with The Waterboys last summer. It was a totally different style of music. Then he came back and did our sessions. But he really enjoyed it. He still buys records and his song [Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers] keeps him tuned into relevant stuff.
You also have a song on this record that’s a co-write with Leon Russell [‘The Heart That Makes Me Whole’]. You two actually knew each other a little bit. How did this particular track come about?
We met in the ‘90s. I had toured opening up for him but I didn’t really know him. But I met him for real when he was playing with Willie Nelson, who I had also played with. I got on Willie’s bus one night and it was just the three of us, which is a really rare thing because there’s always a million people who want to talk to Willie Nelson.
Leon and I started talking about music. He had not been an influence to me. Of course I found out later how great his music was. I liked his influences: I was listening to Pete Johnson, I was listening to Johnny Johnson, I was listening to Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Ray Charles, Charles Brown, older stuff like Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Piano players that were just great. Fats Domino. New Orleans guys like James Booker. Allen Toussaint was a huge influence.
Anyway, I got a call about five years ago that Leon wanted to write a song. The first thing that we did was “Rolling On.” That happened really quickly. I wrote the music and part of the chorus. We probably wrote 10 songs. I forget where this song fit in the mix of what we did. But, musically, it stayed pretty similar to how it started. It’s just one of those things where we had a lot in common with the stuff that we loved. In person, he was a pretty shy character. He was quiet, thoughtful and maybe a little different that people expect. Certainly less wild than he was in early ‘70s.
The record also includes ‘The Name of the Game,’ which is a previously unreleased song written by your father. Had you known about this song for a while?
I’d known about it for probably 15 years, maybe more It wasn’t like I was aiming to do one of my dad’s songs. Right before we started recording, I brought ‘Name of the Game.’ It was just because of the type of material that Dan was picking. I didn’t say, ‘This is a song by my dad.’ I specifically wanted the material to stand on its own and Dan’s just such a great writer that it didn’t make a difference. I didn’t think it was going to make a difference because it had someone’s name attached. In fact, I think that would discourage Dan. I played it for him and he liked it, same for ‘The Heart That Makes Me Whole.’
What was your relationship with your father’s music when you were growing up? And how did these Generations shows come about?
When I was a little kid it was around the house. It was on the radio. Everywhere. Through the ‘70s, it became even bigger after he died. I heard it all the time. It was definitely there. But I listened to his record collection. It didn’t matter, I was listening to everything. It was soul music, it was rock ‘n’ roll, it was folk, it was everything. There was Louis Prima, there was Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Bob Dylan and Nina Simone. It was all across the board.
About 15 or 18 years ago I was transferring a bunch of his tapes to digital. I was listening to all his recordings. And most of my dad’s life, he loved music and listened to music and played music from the time he was a kid, but he didn’t have a professional career until the last 18 months of his life. He had a record deal in the late ‘60s with my mom [Ingrid] briefly on Capitol but it was a short-lived experience because the record didn’t sell super well. I was listening to all the stuff that he had played on for so many years: He would play a Merle Haggard song, he would play a Jimmy Rogers song, he would play a Pink Anderson song and a bunch of blues stuff. He loved Sam Cooke, he grew up listening to R&B in Philadelphia. There was a bunch of stuff that we had in common as far as our taste in music. I recognized that at that time more than ever. It was crazy to hear him do renditions of songs that I had done since I was 12. It’s like DNA or something.
It was the kernel of what started my idea for [these shows].
As you started to learn some of his songs, did you have moments where you stepped back, as a writer, and said, ‘Wow. How did he do that? That’s something pretty remarkable.’?
All the time. Just a week ago I listened to his first album from beginning to end. I hadn’t done that in a long time and I was really taken by what a remarkable songwriter he was at 28-years-old. I think most writers, most musicians by the time they’re that age, have found their identity. He had, for so long, had played other peoples’ music and you could sort of hear other peoples’ music in the stuff that he wrote and then, out of the blue, came ‘Time In A Bottle.’
One of the things that gets overlooked in his music is that he was a guy with a sense of humor.
Absolutely. We moved to California because he had an opportunity to be a guest host for Johnny Carson. He was a funny dude. A huge part of his concerts were about the stories. Whether it was factual or whether it was a made up story. He was very funny. That’s how he got through life, through music and through humor. I don’t think he felt comfortable unless he had the guitar on or was able to be in a situation where he could make someone laugh.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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