February 4, 2021 Martin Johnson
A. J. Croce explains how his dad’s record collection and childhood blindness formed the basis of his musical education
The surname name may be familiar but Adrian James “A. J.” Croce was only a toddler when his father Jim died in a plane crash in 1973 and he has had a 30-year career as a singer, songwriter, piano and guitar player working across various types of American roots music. During his career, he has worked with some of the best musicians working in this genre including T-Bone Burnette, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Robben Ford, Bill Payne, Greg Leisz, Steve Cropper, Vince Gill and David Hood to name a few. His 2017 album, ‘Just Like Medicine’, was produced by legendary Muscle Shoals and Memphis producer and songwriter Dan Penn and included a co-write with Leon Russell. His latest album, “By Request”, in contrast, is an album of 12 covers from multiple genres and decades and features his road band, but what a road band, with ex-Dr John bassist David Barard, ex-Van Morrison and Steve Miller drummer Gary Mallaber and up and coming Nashville guitar-player Garrett Stoner. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with A.J. Croce in his Nashville home over Zoom to discuss the art of songwriting, the benefits of living in East Nashville, the influence of his father’s record collection and how childhood partial blindness formed part of his musical development. He also shares his definition of what constitutes americana music and recommends a long lost Little Richard country album.
How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I’ve been healthy and I’ve been close to home here in Nashville but it has just been a crazy time here in the US.
We saw news here in the UK.
Yeah, we better leave it at that. Crazy, Crazy.
Your new album ‘By Request’ is different in that it is an album of covers produced by yourself with your road band. Why the change in approach?
It is not that much of a change. These are just songs that I have played at my house for years for different friends. My touring band, they are really seasoned session players, Gary Mallaber was on all those great Van Morrison records in the ‘60s and early ‘70s and drummed on Moondance, Tupelo Honey and Saint Dominic’s Preview, he was with Steve Miller Band and did loads of sessions with Herb Albert and all those guys. My bass player, David Barard, is from New Orleans and he was with Dr John for 30 years, and Toussaint before that, and recorded with all those acts like Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas. I have a great touring band.
I was being tongue-in-cheek when I called them your road band haha. How do you get musicians of that calibre to tour with you?
But they are my touring band and we have been touring together for several years. They like playing with me and we have fun. They get a lot of freedom, a lot of improvisation and every night is different, and like you get any musician you pay them.
I notice you have a picture of Satchmo behind you. How much improvisation is there with your band when you play live?
Oh, a lot. A lot because otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun. There are certain songs I have had to play for a long time, songs from my first and second and third albums, and as you keep making recordings that just keeps happening as people request things. The songs on ‘By Request’ all started out at parties and gatherings at my house, musicians or music fans would request a song and each song is for a different friend. Most of these songs had been thrown into the set at one time or another, and we had been on the road pretty solid for a year and a half, before going into the studio so we tried them all out. It is a live album but recorded in a studio, if I could have I would have recorded in my house but it is not set up for that but I would have loved to recreate the feel with a bunch of friends. Instead, we went to a place that is two minutes away from me, a converted house that has all this analogue gear and we recorded there. I am singing live, a lot of times after singing and playing piano I overdubbed playing organ or guitar, percussion whatever was needed. We recorded the album in a week, 4 days of tracking 2 days of overdubs. We didn’t go over 16 tracks and it was all to 2 inch, which is the way I like to do it, we would do 3 tacks of a song and find what feels good, a lot of times the first one feels great.
Don’t overthink it.
Yeah, that is it. Don’t overthink it. Everyone there is a good player, everyone has good intuition as far as where things should go. This is the fourth record of mine that I have produced over the years and obviously, budgets aren’t what they used to be, so so much of it needs to be thought out in pre-production.
Did the arrangements come from your live shows or were they new?
The horn players aren’t part of the live band that is just the quartet. I had a real clear picture of what I wanted to do for the harmonies, certainly, I knew exactly where I wanted the singers. There are two types of songs on the record because there are the ones I really focused on because friends requested a particular song and back in the house they had been on guitar or whatever with me and I played the version they know, with the Billy Preston song I play it pretty close to the original but the arrangement of it I wanted to change it from having that circus feel that he had on it to having a funkier Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone horn inspired part. I really wanted it to move and build and I had a real clear picture of which instruments I wanted. In my head, I heard the harmonies of baritone sax, flugelhorn and trombone. That was already a present thought when I went into it. The Randy Newman song came from a request from a friend who knew it from the Flaming Groovies version of it from the early ‘70s and I had the idea of what would it be like if Little Richard sat in with the Flaming Groovies. It is not one of my favourite Randy Newman songs, I like it don’t get me wrong, it is just that I love his writing and that was kind of fun. I took a little bit of the original and a bit of the cover version, and then I added my own little thing to it.
I hadn’t heard of your guitar play Garrett Stoner but when I had a quick look around he certainly seemed to have an up and coming reputation.
He is the youngest in the band, he is 26 and I met him through a friend who was kind of his mentor and is a phenomenal guitarist around town called Andy Reiss who has played on countless Nashville sessions and is a first-call guitarist. I said I was looking for someone who was really capable and he said I have this young guy I have been working with and he is really good. His tone is phenomenal, he just cares so much about it. Not only is he technically a good player, he really hears the tone first and you can’t teach that.
How long have you been based in Nashville?
On and off, been mainly here since 2008. I moved back to California briefly in 2011 and moved here permanently in 2015.
There is an awful lot of music in Nashville and it isn’t all country is it?
Absolutely and it has always been like that. Everyone from Stax moved here, everyone from Sun Records moved here, a lot of the folks from Muscle Shoals moved here and that is just the soul world. A lot of rock’n’roll artists from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s have moved here because it has a good quality of life and you are surrounded by creative people. You get inspired by other people doing creative things all the time. There are a lot of British ex-pats here, I know a bunch who came here in the late ‘60s and they were songwriters and publishers, or both, and when the psychedelic thing happened they weren’t writing for bands because bands were writing for themselves at that point. They moved here because there was still a huge community of songwriters.
Property seems quite reasonable as well in Nashville.
Yes, and it is pretty central if you tour as I do. There are 25 big cities within 8 hours drive of Nashville. You can get to most cities in a couple of hours flying though California takes over 3, so it is pretty good. The weather isn’t great, I can’t completely warm up despite the heating being on, and it is miserably thick in the summer. It makes it a creative place because you are practising your writing, you are making art and I dig it.
You have worked with some great musicians over the years. Your last album ‘Just Like Medicine’ was produced by the great Dan Penn and had songs you co-wrote with Leon Russell. How did you come to co-write songs with Leon?
Leon and I wrote close to a dozen songs together over a few years. We were just sort of kindred spirits, I loved his work but he wasn’t an influence on me. His influences were my influences, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino and then going back to guys like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Little Brother Montgomery, these artists that we both had in common. I had opened for him on a few shows in the ‘90s but I didn’t know he knew of me. He and Willie Nelson were doing this short little tour with just the two of them on stage, and it was so great to hear them play their own songs solo by themselves, it was so intimate, and then they played together and it was really special. After the show, I went on Willie’s bus which was a rare thing because it was just the three of us, and there are always people wanting to get on, and Leon and I just really hit it off. We started talking about music and old 78s that we had, and all this different stuff. A few years later he gave me a call and said “wanna write?”. We started right then and the first one we wrote together was ‘Rollin’ On’, and that was on ‘Twelve Tails’ produced by Allen Toussaint and I’m the piano player on it. The last one we wrote together was on ‘Just Like Medicine’, ‘The Heart Makes Me Whole’, and yeah there is a bunch more.
He didn’t co-write with many people during his career, did he?
Yeah, that’s true. It was interesting because I wrote the music and some of the lyrics for ‘The Heart That Makes Me Whole’ and with everything else, apart from the odd word here or there, he asked that I write the music and sing the melody and he would then send me back lyrics. Even if we were both in Nashville, it didn’t matter if we were in the same town, we only wrote in person once and that was in Austin, Texas, just by chance we were both there and we went into a studio for about four hours and wrote. It was a fun experience and he was just so great.
Leon Russell still seems to hold a special place in the heart of musicians, particularly in Nashville.
How would you describe the genre that covers AJ Croce’s music? Is americana too limiting? What is the market like for what is classic American music?
You know, there are not a lot of people who play the way I do. It has taken me a long time to build the audience I have. Once I started playing theatres and 1000 – 1500 seat places the word spreads much fast than when I was playing for 50 people. It took a long time to get to this point, a lot of character building years. When I got started I was on a major and there was a lot of press around it and the first one they kind of put in the jazz world and that wasn’t right for me. I followed up with an album that drummer Jim Keltner produced with Ry Cooder on it that was completely different and I was supposed to have that freedom when I got signed. I felt that being in any box was uncomfortable. With americana, I remember when the genre started and there were only three stations playing it and it was speciality stations for an hour or so a week. Then before long there was an americana chart, and it was like the younger sibling of Triple-A in America, it wasn’t country it was stuff that didn’t really fit into the rock’n’roll world that was a little rootsier, it also included any kind of American music that was organic. Artists who were not getting played on country radio saw the benefit of doing what they were doing and getting played on americana. I think it is a good coverall for a lot of people.
There is a continuing debate on Americana UK about what is and isn’t americana and that definition you have just given is pretty good. What have you done with your COVID downtime in 2020?
The album was done before COVID started, this time last year. It was meant to come out last spring and I still sell a lot of my records on tour so it wasn’t really practical. When this comes out I am still not going to be able to tour for at least a month but more likely it will be at least May. I’ve actually done a lot, I’ve been really creative and written a ton of music, a lot of music in different genres some world music has inspired me and I have a project I have been working on for the last seven years based on origin myths and is a collaboration with a group out of New York who are an afro-beat group called Antibalas. They are an interesting band because they are very soulful, they started in Mexico City and there are five languages spoken in the group, They have played with numerous artists including Sharon Jones providing horns and a rhythm section. They were the house band for the Daptone label. I also brushed up on French and Italian, reading a lot, watching old movies, I even learnt how to tap-dance. I didn’t want this time to go by and me to say I didn’t get anything done. The songs I have written for the next album, I am really excited about. I was writing those before I recorded ‘By Request’ and some have really held up well. So I’m looking forward to finishing that stuff and recording a new album this year.
Some people I have spoken to have said the enforced downtime has not been all bad, particularly if you are a hard-working musician who normally tours a lot.
Yeah. There are five film projects I am working on, one as a producer which is a new responsibility for me, one is a feature film and the rest are documentaries. Each is unique and I have a different role in each one. It has actually been pretty busy and I am grateful for it.
What is it like being signed to Compass Records? They have an excellent reputation and a very interesting catalogue.
You know, Compass is very supportive from the artistic perspective, but they are an indie label and so there is only so much they can do. There is a certain amount that all indie labels rely on their artists to bring their audience to the fold. I have two independent labels myself and I don’t want to put my own music out, I don’t want to have to sell myself on the merchandising side, but I know how it works, what works and what doesn’t as far as the business side goes. I understand where they are coming from and I feel for them because it is a challenging time without any of their artists out on tour. There are a number of artists on Compass that I am very close to, people that I have introduced to Compass like Nicki Bluhm.
Do you get involved in the streaming arrangements for your music and what are your views from the artist’s perspective?
I have a view as an artist and then on the business side as well. I have real mixed feelings about it, on the one hand, I love that music is accessible for everyone, it really is accessible, and I think that is great because it is not expensive anymore to take a chance on something. You can listen to it if you dig it and you may want to download the whole thing if you don’t then you don’t, and you are not out $20. It is a different world in that regard. As far as being a writer and an artist it is chump change, you know. You get 13 million clicks on Spotify and make $400 which I am happy for but that isn’t the way it is supposed to work. That was just one particular month last year. It is painful and I know the people supporting it are paying a subscription and doing their bit, but it is not a new media anymore and I think they should pay the artists and the publishers a fair rate.
Bandcamp is becoming increasingly popular with artists with some artists are making the call not to place their music anywhere else.
Yeah for sure. I think unfortunately you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It is something that exists, fewer listeners go to Bandcamp than they do to YouTube or Spotify and if you want to be heard you kind of need to be everywhere.
How do you see yourself, are you a performer or a songwriter?
I will tell you, each discipline that I have matured differently. When I started off as a kid I was a strong piano player, I was a better piano player and musician than I was a singer or a songwriter. Over time, those disciplines sort of got exercised and over years of practice of doing 90 co-writes a year here in Nashville, I got good at it. I got good at not only the discipline of doing it but also at what makes me happy with it. I don’t compromise, I love B-sides of old records, I like deep cuts, I’m not necessarily looking for a hit single and in fact, whenever I hear something of mine on the radio I am surprised and I am also surprised with what they pick because I can’t imagine it. I am not looking for a pop hit I am looking for something timeless, I’m looking to play something that is timeless so that when you come back to this record in 20 years it will still hold up.
Why the piano as your primary instrument? It is a difficult instrument to play well and there aren’t many real piano players about.
I’m left-handed, and when I was very young I played guitar and it was hard to do because I was a tiny kid, about two and a half or something, and it was hard to get the guitar teacher to teach me left-handed. There was also a piano there, and when I lost my sight in 1975 at about 4 years old, I got turned on to Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and I was listening to the radio and in the mid-’70s there was a lot of good stuff on the radio. I was hearing McCartney, Lennon, Eric Clapton and all those things that were great pop songs and I would play along. As well as listening to my dad’s record collection, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, Fats Domino and also Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and all this different music that was in the collection. I just gravitated towards the piano, I heard it in my head and I felt it. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I got a guitar as a gift and it completely changed everything. The first top 40 single I had on Rock Radio was something I wrote on guitar and that was interesting to me because I had to simplify everything because I know all my options on the piano but on the guitar I still don’t know all my options. It is the difference of learning as a child and learning as an adult, it is harder and you don’t have the same amount of time to put into it. I still have to practice piano. Over the years I have come to love playing the guitar and it is part of my show, I play a lot of instruments it is just one of those things when I first got home recording setup I realised I wasn’t going to be able to call musicians when I wanted to demo a song so I learnt how to play everything. You can obviously apply the fundamental theory of piano to any instrument.
You mentioned your dad, you were only a toddler when he was killed but how much did his music influence your own?
Again, like Leon Russell, his influences were more influential than he was. You can hear in my father’s music, his songs, you really hear Lieber & Stoller. They were a huge part of it, they wrote for the Coasters, they wrote for Elvis and all different artists, their character-based songs were a template and my dad made them slightly more personal by making his songs about people he had met, or composites of people. That kind of ‘50s and early ‘60s rock’n’roll and R&B that they were writing obviously influenced ‘Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, all those character-based songs he wrote. Then there was the stuff he wrote that was very influenced by traditional folk music from the British Isles and America and I was less influenced by that with the exception of the roots music of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie who were certainly part of my education. As I mentioned before, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy and all those players and it was so easy to play their music on piano, anything that is hard on guitar is generally easy and simple on piano and vice versa. I learned how to play stride piano by listening to Mississippi John Hurt because it is so simplified I could finally understand it and I could play it all with my left hand, but when I was listening to Fats Waller or Willie “The Lion” Smith and that stuff, it is really, really complicated. It is very hard with huge reaches and it is fast. I took that on as a teenager because I just loved the challenge of it but that isn’t to say I wasn’t listening to the music of my era too, it was there just that there wasn’t as much that I was influenced by. I have always been a kind of a loner in that regard, I have never been part of a particular group.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
I have a stack of records and the ones that are on the front of the stack are the last three I listened to. One of them is the Little Richard record ‘Southern Child’, have you heard that it has just been released and was shelved by Reprise in 1972 and it has just come out on vinyl and it is freakin’ great. It is his country rock album except it is Little Richard, Earl Palmer is playing drums, “Bumps” Blackwell produced it and it is great. The next one is Nina Simone’s ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and the third one is Alvin Robinson. It is funny, I put the Alvin Robinson 45 on my jukebox and my bass play David Barard was staying with me for a couple of days here in Nashville, up from New Orleans, and he was like who is that? I said it was Alvin Robinson, and he was like how come I don’t know this and I said it is Alvin Robinson from New Orleans and he goes “Shine”. He didn’t know he had had a career before he played with Dr John, he was playing guitar with Dr John for 10 years while David played bass, and David was in the band for 30 years. He said he never knew him as Alvin Robinson and just never knew his history haha.
A.J. Croce’s ‘By Request’ is out now on Compass Records.