'Croce: Two Generations' show set in Durango

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
A.J. Croce has recorded with many of pop music's best-known producers, and he says the quality they all have in common is an ability to listen well.

FARMINGTON – A.J. Croce had a lot of reasons for not wanting to play the songs of his famous father, the late Jim Croce, for most of his career.

The younger Croce didn’t start playing guitar until his 30s, sticking primarily with piano until that point. And many of his father’s songs either didn’t sound good on piano or they simply weren’t very challenging to play on anything but guitar, he said.

But mostly, it was a matter of not wanting to rely on his father’s name for his success. A.J. Croce signed his first recording contract when he was 19, and by the time he reached his early 40s, he had released a number of critically acclaimed albums and was a highly regarded singer-songwriter in his own right.

“Once I got to a certain age, I didn’t feel like I was trying to struggle with my own identity anymore,” he said by phone last week from his Nashville home. “I felt like I had established my own identity, and I was confident with it.”

That realization led him to begin performing a handful of his “Croce: Two Generations of American Music” shows each year. Those performances feature him playing many of his father’s signature songs, such as “Operator,” “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and “One Less Set of Footsteps,” as well as some tunes of his own and other songs that influenced both of them. The concerts also feature photo and video clips from Jim Croce’s life, along with stories by A.J. Croce.

He said he only does the show a few times each year. One of those performances will come this weekend when he takes the stage at the Community Concert Hall in Durango, Colo. Croce said he had many offers to play his father’s music when he was younger, an idea that held no appeal for him at the time.

“I was pressured (to perform those songs), but I didn’t do it,” he said. “I had a lot of opportunities to do it to make a lot of money, especially when I was starting out, but I didn’t do it.”

Now, Croce is performing his father’s music for his own reasons. Because Jim Croce died in a plane crash when A.J. was only 2 years old, the younger Croce said he has no recollection of his direct relationship with him.

But the fact that his father was a musician — one who crafted some of the more memorable and enduring songs of the 1970s — A.J. Croce said he feels like he has been able to build a bit of a relationship with him.

“He wasn’t there to raise me,” he said. “Nevertheless, we have this musical connection.”

A.J. Croce said it was the music his dad left behind — the recordings of his that had been made public and a catalog of unreleased recordings — that forged that bond.

“A lot of people whose parents die, they don’t have that connection,” he said. “But there was this presence that’s always been there because he was on the radio and there were these home recordings where I could hear him talk to friends. It’s kind of comforting, in some ways.”

When A.J. Croce became the steward of his father’s unreleased recordings, he spent hours transferring those recordings from cassette and reel-to-reel tapes to a digital format. To his surprise, he realized he and his father had a great deal in common when it came to their music. That experience also provided him with a new glimpse into his dad’s personality.

“I discovered we had a lot of the same influences — Sam Cooke and a lot of the old R&B artists,” he said. “For him, that was just part of growing up in south Philadelphia. He was the Beat generation, the generation before the baby boomers. He was coy about it and came about it from a slightly different perspective.

“I heard all of these influences,” he said, explaining that the tapes revealed a Jim Croce who enjoyed playing obscure songs by the likes of Fats Waller, Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith and Woody Guthrie. “Those were the exact same songs I’d been playing since I was 18.”

That’s where the idea for the “Two Generations” show began to take root. Later, a family friend and music producer helped crystallize that idea by suggesting that the younger Croce consider doing a show in which he performed his own music and that of his father’s while drawing lines for the audience to the historic origins of the material.

A.J. Croce was only 2 years old when his father Jim died, but he managed to establish a connection with his dad anyway through the music he left behind.

Despite his earlier misgivings about playing his father’s songs, A.J. Croce finally acknowledged to himself the merit of that idea.

“I kept coming back to this idea that it was the musical and historical aspects there were interesting,” he said. “So I tried it last year for the first time and really enjoyed myself. It was really cathartic. And I could see the audience was really moved by it. So I said, ‘Let’s do a handful of these a year.’ I don’t know if it’s just nostalgia, but for whatever reason, people enjoy it.”

Though he was forced to deal with the loss of his eyesight as a child, A.J. Croce experienced success in the music business at a much earlier age than his father did. He was opening for B.B. King by the age of 18 and released his first album, co-produced by the famed T-Bone Burnett, at the age of 21.

Over the next two-plus decades, he would go on to collaborate with a diverse group of artists that included David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billy Payne of Little Feat, Sweet Pea Atkinson of Was (Not Was), Ry Cooder and Waddy Wachtel while considerably widening his original sound from jazz and blues to include pop and Americana.

His landmark 2013 disc “Twelve Tales” was crafted over the course of a year, with each of its songs being recorded in a different city with a different legendary producer, the likes of which included “Cowboy” Jack Clement (Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley), Allen Toussaint (Dr. John, Paul McCartney), Tony Berg (Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan), Kevin Killen (Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello) and Greg Cohen (Tom Waits).

“They’re each unique, but every great producer has one thing in common, which is, they really listen well,” Croce said of that experience. “They’re listening to all aspects of your recording and trying to find out where your comfort zone is. … Even though I may not have known a lot of these producers when I came to work with them, they’re so intuitive, so open. They’re really open to hearing what you have to say or think about something.”

That talent for being a good listener is something Croce said he’s tried to cultivate on his own.

“My ears are tuned to listening to the thing that’s different,” he said. “In every great song, regardless of genre, what’s sticking out is not what you expect, but what you don’t expect. That’s a gift every great songwriter has, and my dad had it … It’s that uniqueness that makes it valuable and different.”

Listening to the unreleased recordings his father left behind, A.J. Croce believes he has identified the point at which his father was able to make the artistic leap from imitator to original.

“(Up until that point) he was wearing his influences of folk music and country music. His influences were really palpable,” A.J. Croce said, explaining that his father didn’t get signed to his first recording deal until his late twenties and was feeling a significant amount of pressure to produce some results as a songwriter.

Though Jim Croce had earned a master’s degree in psychology and language, he worked as a truck driver, welder and construction worker while trying to establish himself in the music business. His family, which initially didn’t discourage his pursuit of a career in music, was prodding him to put that aside and do something with his education.

A.J. Croce believes it was a major life change that finally pushed his dad to become a true artist.

“There was this moment in 1970 when he discovered that my mom was pregnant,” he said. “And he wrote ‘Time in a Bottle.’ All of the sudden, almost overnight, there was this moment where this song was being written, and after he did that, he was never the same. There was this moment where his artistic identity was born.”

Croce said that pressure his father was feeling comes through in those unreleased recordings.

“There’s an air of almost desperation,” he said. “There was an urgency in his writing this song that I heard … It was my dad’s last chance to be a musician.”

That song remains deeply significant to the younger Croce not just because it was written about him, but because its arrival finally unlocked the creative force that had been bottled up inside his father. Over the next couple of years, the elder Croce would realize the commercial success that had eluded him up to that point, with “Time in a Bottle” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” both going to No. 1 on the pop charts and several other tunes becoming lesser hits. He was on the verge of becoming one of brightest stars in American music when he was killed in a plane crash on Sept. 20, 1973, in Natchitoches, La., shortly after performing a concert there.

But that tragedy hardly ended Jim Croce’s run as a musical force. His posthumous greatest-hits package, “Photographs & Memories,” has sold millions of copies, and his music continues to turn up on contemporary movie soundtracks ranging from “Invincible” (2006) and “The Hangover Part II” (2011) to “Django Unchained” (2013) and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014).

Director Quentin Tarantino’s choice to use Jim Croce's cover of “I Got a Name” during a particularly memorable scene in “Django Unchained” was especially pleasing to A.J. Croce.

“I knew from someone working on the set of the film that Tarantino wanted the song and was pretty adamant about it,” he said. “That scene was important for him, but you never know at that stage whether something is going to get cut. There are all kinds of reasons these days why things get cut. But right before (the film) came out, I heard it was being used, and I thought it was great. I’m always surprised when his music turns up some place you’d never expect it.”

As for his own music, A.J. Croce is planning his new disc, which he hopes to release early next year. He described it as a concept album that is very much focused on soulful songs, albeit with a twist.

“I’m trying to think outside the box of Stax or Motown,” he said. “There’s all kinds of soulful music out there — Willie Nelson, Cuban, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Eastern European. They all have soulful aspects.

“I think I will sit down, and sometimes, I’ll just think of approaching something from a different place, like late ‘60s Ethiopian soul, then I might go from there into something that takes me somewhere else. I try to do that pretty regularly. I try to go outside of what’s in my wheelhouse.”

Croce has two European tours planned this year and will fit in trips to the studio around those excursions. The timing of those recording sessions also will depend on the availability of the legendary Mussel Shoals Horns, a group that will have a strong presence on his new album, he said.

In the meantime, Croce said he’ll continue to perform the occasional “Two Generations” show for the foreseeable future.

“I think it’s something I’ll continue to do,” he said. “My music will change and add diversity to it. The influences can always be that facet of the show, but my part can always be different. The show doesn’t need to remain stagnant. I feel like it always can remain fresh.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: A.J. Croce’s “Two Generations of American Music” concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13

Where: The Community Concert Hall on the Fort Lewis College campus, 1000 Rim Drive in Durango, Colo.

Tickets: $29 and $39, available online at durangoconcerts.com, by phone at 970-247-7657 or in person at the Welcome Center at Eighth Street and Main Avenue in downtown Durango.

For more information: ajcrocemusic.com