By Jeb Wright, September, 2013
The world is full of talented men and women who should have been huge stars. Some had bad breaks, some threw away their chance and others, for some unknown reason, simply never quite had it happen for them. Such is the case of Joe Grushecky. This singer and songwriter from Pittsburgh, made a few splashes, came damn close to making it, and even grew a faithful, albeit small, dedicated fan base. Yet, the brass ring never was quite in reach.
Joe didn’t give up, though. He is friends with some pretty famous people, even jamming on stage with them at times throughout his career, none more famous than Bruce Springsteen.
Joe kept his day job and kept making music despite the universe’s unwillingness to make it happen for him. He was very creative, and very charitable. He works with troubled children and he has helped raised a ton of cash for The Light of Day Foundation.
Perhaps Joe is bit like the ballplayer Moonlight Graham in the movie Field of Dreams. While Moonlight never got to be a baseball star player, he became a doctor and the real shame would have been if he had made it as a player, as a lot of people would have suffered as he would not have been there for him. Joe has done a lot of good for people as well. Perhaps if he had ‘made it’ those people would not have been helped.
Still, the man is writing, recording and playing music and has a new album ready for release that he thinks may be his best since hitting the national scene back in 1979. Could be, let’s hope so. Just as Moonlight finally got that big league at bat in a cornfield in Iowa, maybe Joe can get that much deserved recognition outside of his home base of Steel Town.
Jeb: I really enjoy your past music and the new album is very polished and well written. You had fans actually do www.pledgemusic.com to fund the album. Tell me writing the album and doing the music pledge thing.
Joe: I was recording this record for quite some time. I love to play music. I am the type of guy who would just be doing it in my basement if I wasn’t doing it professionally. I had not put out a record for quite a while. I had the urge to put something out and I started recording and recording.
One day, I was going through some of my books and I saw East of Eden by Steinbeck, which is one of my favorite books. The next day, I was reading about these vets returning home from Iraq. I had the thought that they were coming home from somewhere east of Eden, because that is where the Garden of Eden was supposed to be. I sat down and wrote this song that was about what was in that article. This guy pulled an Iraqi family from a burning wreck and then got back in the States and he could not get a job. That gave me the framework for the rest of the record. It gave me my title track. I have a little story going on and I approach each album like that…I do it like I am writing a book. I have a beginning, middle and an end. I started taking a few of the things I was working on and then got inspired to write a bunch of new songs.
As I was getting close to being finished with the record, Warner Brothers Nashville said they would distribute it. If I was going to be involved in the music business again, then I needed some capital. They steered me to the pledge music thing, which is my first adventure in that type of financing. I am just surprised how many people responded.
Jeb: You have been an Indi artist for a long time.
Joe: I have been totally on my own. I stared out on MCA records; I have four records on MCA. We were as critically acclaimed back in the ‘80s as you could be. Rolling Stone has a list of the hundred greatest guitarists of all time and I have had three of them produce me. I have always worked with top flight people and great musicians. The press has usually been kind to me.
I had been totally independent for the last ten years, so it was sort of a leap of faith for me to get back into what is left of this business. I am glad I did, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you and that would mean there was one less person who knew about my music.
Jeb: You are very talented. I love the old blues stuff so I really loved…
Joe: “John the Revelator.” Pittsburgh was a huge blues town when I was growing up, so that is part of my roots. I could sit in with any blues band, as I know all the standards. If you grew up here, then you played the blues.
I really, really loved the Sun House version of that song. I always wanted to do that song, so this seemed like a good enough time for me to try it. Instead of stomping my foot, I just put a loop in there.
Jeb: Were you in a studio, or did you do it in a home studio?
Joe: A friend of mine has a studio and I pay to use it. I do finance my own recordings.
Jeb: Do you use the Net to do a lot of promotion?
Joe: It kept me alive, let’s put it that way. It lets people know who I am, so it is a good thing for me.
Jeb: You have an attitude in your music without having an attitude. It even comes across on the video on your music pledge page.
Joe: Yeah, I dig it. The music pledge was a lot of fun. I didn’t think I would like it because I am so private. After the first couple of weeks, after I saw people responding, then I felt like I had a team and I felt like it wasn’t just me. I was playing with some people on my side now, so that made it fun. I enjoyed it actually.
I have the obligation to do the best that I can do with the resources that I have. I think the album has a really good sound and I really think it has really terrific performances and songs on it. At the end of the day, as an artist, that is all I can do. If people want to come along for the ride, then I am totally flattered. I am really flattered people are joining up to have me do this.
Over the years, I think I have built up some good will because I have done a lot of charity work. I have really paid my dues in the community as a musician and as a positive force. I think people might be responding to that a little bit too. They are rooting for the underdog and trying to help him out a little bit.
Jeb: How do you create?
Joe: I love music. I listen to stuff all the time. I was able to grow up in a really rich time period. I grew up in an era where they had these competing AM stations that would play the most obscure stuff you could find.
I saw Chuck Berry, Little Richard and all these great guys in these teen nightclubs. My father was a musician and his father was a musician and there were instruments in the house that I could bang on. I soaked it all up.
As I get older, I wish I would have soaked up more. I wish I would have listened to the folk music and the ethnic music that my parents played. I wish I would have listened to the polkas and the hard core country that was around. As much as I picked up stuff, I missed out on stuff as well.
I always liked the Stones and the Beatles early records because you can hear Motown, Buck Owens, Chuck Berry and the stuff they were writing. That is sort of my approach.
Jeb: The album is coming out. So now what?
Joe: I am going to go out on the road a little bit and hit New York, Chicago, D.C. and places I used to play a lot in my younger years. I am being a little more aggressive with this album.
Jeb: What blows me away on Somewhere East of Eden is the different style of music, both original and remakes. You seem to want to stay limitless.
Joe: I am just going wherever it takes me. I have another album and a half in the can. I am not one of those guys who is always writing. I am more of a project writer. Usually, if the pattern holds, I listen and read and watch movies and just immerse myself into stuff. I observe the world around me and, at some point, I start writing. I write until I get a project finished.
Once I am finished with it then I really concentrate on the recording of it. After I think I have it all recorded and it is through the birthing process, then, at some point down the road, I get sick of listening to everything I just made and I have to do something new.
Jeb: “When Castro Came Down From the Hills” is a great song. Tell me about it.
Joe: I wrote that song back in the ‘90s. I don’t know what inspired that. Maybe it was the Godfather movie where they come into Havana at the end. Maybe it was reading Hemmingway or something like that.
I had this title with Castro in it and it was one of those songs that just poured out of me. I had this narrative that I wanted to tell about an American falling in love with a wealthy Spanish lady and how circumstances kept them apart. I put it on the backburner, thinking someday I will make a huge epic song out of it. I wanted it to be very cinematic and something different than I usually do.
This time, like I said, I was recording and recording and recording and I decided to mess around with this song. I changed keys on it a couple of times and it ended up landing in 6/8 time. That made it sort of a traditional Latin song. We put a lot of percussion on it and this guy who knew all of the Latin stuff on piano played on it. We got a trumpet player and we orchestrated it. I am actually kind of proud of the way that it turned out.
Jeb: There is a very personal thread throughout the album.
Joe: I think all of my records are personal. It just depends on what you’re mining. I work with problematic children and it is all a part of who I am. I put it right out there in the forefront on this one a bit.
Jeb: You have said that Somewhere East of Eden is one of your very best.
Joe: I felt that when I was recording it. When you’re done with it, then you keep your fingers crossed when you play it for people. The first two people I played it for are both business people. They both told me that it was the very best album I had ever done. I am so glad they felt that way because I thought it was pretty damn good while I was making it.
Jeb: Does it surprise you that your best work is coming out at your age?
Joe: No, not at all. I am just starting to get the knack of it [laughter]. Sometimes success can be bad for you. There are a lot of guys that take a decade off and then they come back and their stuff is really very mediocre. Me, I am still chasing that brass ring. I am still chasing the Holy Grail. I am still getting up every day, busting my ass and I still want to make enough money to give up my day gig. I have a little more urgency than some of these older guys.
I’ve never quit playing. I have never taken a break from playing my whole life. I put my first record out in 1979 and I have never taken an extended break. I might have taken a month off, but I have never taken anything like six months off. It is almost unthinkable to me to think of taking that much time off.
A lot of it is muscles, as your hands get stronger, your voice gets stronger and you get more in tune with your instrument. I think the guys that have worked at it over the years keep getting better at it.
Jeb: Tell me about your work with The Light of Day Foundation. You are very involved with that.
Joe: My manager has Parkinson’s disease and over the years The Light of Day Foundation has raised over a million dollars to combat the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
It has, over the years, become a huge community of musicians. Garland Jeffreys and I have gotten to know each other through Light of Day. I used to listen to him and now we are friends. Willie Nile is another one. He has a great new record. I am friends with them, as well as all the guys who have contributed over the years. They show up every year and give their time for this cause. It has become not only a very worthy cause to work for, but it is also one hell of a party.
Jeb: Last one: You have a friendship with Bruce Springsteen. How did that come about and what is it like standing on stage with him?
Joe: Standing on stage with him is like playing baseball with Mickey Mantle. It is like catching a pass from Joe Montana. You are playing with one of the all-time greats. If you have a skill, then you want to be compared to the greatest, and play with the greats. Plus, he is a good time and he is a great guy. We rock pretty hard when we get together.
I met him through Steven Van Zandt, who worked on one of my records way back when.
Jeb: I love that you have kept trying. And the result of all of those years is this great album. Good luck with this album, Joe. I mean that.
Joe: Thank you, man. Thank you so much.
Check out Joe and his band The Houserockers here http://www.joegrushecky.ca/
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