A.J. Croce Stirs Up a Soulful Stew. But Don't Call It a Throwback.

Photo by Sebastian Smith/Courtesy of Hello Wendy PR
A.J. Croce's latest record is a deep dip into Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul.
The soul music of the ‘60s that was laid down in recording studios like Stax in Memphis, Tennessee and FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound in Muscle Shoals, Alabama has inspired a lot of artists in the ensuing decades. And many of them have tried their own hand at recreating that distinct sound or the vibe in their own work.

But rather than just pen a bunch of original tunes in that style, singer/pianist/organist A.J. Croce wanted to get a bit closer with his ninth and most recent studio album, Just Like Medicine (Compass Records). He picked up another Penn – Dan, that is. The multi-faceted producer was an integral part of that original soul scene, and co-wrote songs including “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”

click to enlarge COMPASS RECORDS COVER
Compass Records cover
From an original one-song project to capture a piece that the pair co-wrote (“The Other Side of Love”) sprung the entire album. And it features the playing of a number of O.G. guests including Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, FAME/Muscle Shoals Sound bassist David Hood, and the Muscle Shoal Horns in addition to contemporary stellar musicians. But make no mistake – Croce was not out just to make a “throwback” album.

“It was kind of an organic thing. I wasn’t thinking I would copy Stax or Muscle Shoals or Motown and do covers. I wanted to do original music,” Croce says. “We did two songs for a 45 and it went so well, I asked Dan if he wanted to do a whole record together! And I wanted the [music] to sound just as good on a transistor radio as a hi-fi system.”

Most of the songs are written by Croce alone (including “Gotta Get Outta My Head,” “Move On,” and “I Couldn’t Stop”), but there is also a co-write with the late Leon Russell (“The Heart That Makes Me Whole”). Finally, if “Name of the Game” sounds like it could have been a lost track written by A.J.’s father, the well-known late singer/songwriter Jim Croce…well, it is.

It is one of the last songs that Jim Croce put to paper and audio tape before his untimely 1973 death in a plane crash at the age of 30, intended for his next album that never was. A.J. was just 2 when his father passed.

“I first heard it when I was 12 or 13, then I revisited it in my thirties when I was digitizing a lot of his old cassettes and reel to reels for archival purposes. I just put it on my iPod and thought it was a fun song,” he says. After playing it for his wife and some friends, their positive reaction convinced him to record his own version. “It fits in with the other material, but it’s unique.” Vince Gill plays on that track, and guitarist Colin Linden’s fingers go up and down the frets of the exact guitar on which Jim wrote the song.

Beyond soul, Croce’s discography has touched on many different genres from blues and jazz to Americana and even pop. And he likes the freedom that path has taken him on, even at the expense of perhaps procuring a single, solid audience or recording for a larger label. Though he admits the pull of indie labels in terms of publicity and artist exposure is not as robust.

“My favorite artists were never in any one category like Ray Charles, Ry Cooder, the Beatles. And Tom Waits and Elvis Costello,” Croce says. And indeed, his vocal phrasing on “The Road” owes something to the bespectacled English “King of America.”

For the upcoming show in Houston, Croce will perform as part of a duo along with vocalist/bassist David Barard, who spent 30 years in Dr. John’s backing band, the Lower 911. And while the set list will concentrate on songs from Just Like Medicine, he will also include material from across his career, along with some favorite covers.

As for Houston, Croce remembers that his first couple of gigs were at the storied Rockefeller’s. But it wasn’t until about a decade later when he stayed downtown and was able to experience more of the city.

“I thought it was really a great metropolis, and I loved going to the art museums. And I’ve always admired the blues and country artists that came out of Houston,” he sums up. “I think I’ve criss-crossed the state of Texas on the road about 100 times! It’s the greatest landscape to travel and listen to music.”

A.J. Croce performs January 18, at 8:30 p.m. at the Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 North. $15-$24. 281-367-3774 or