Classic Rock Corner

Folk-Punk Fans Remind Us That Jim Croce Was a Musical Giant

The back cover of You Don't Mess Around with Jim, a seminal album in the author's musical upbringing, which remains in pristine condition in his personal record collection
The back cover of You Don't Mess Around with Jim, a seminal album in the author's musical upbringing, which remains in pristine condition in his personal record collection Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

When I was a kid, one of my dad's favorite musicians was Jim Croce, so, by proxy, he was one of my favorites, too. I remember sitting on our living room's orange shag carpet (it was the 1970s) and singing along to "Operator" with Dad while I strummed mindlessly at a guitar I never learned to play. My love for Croce's songs was as thick and pronounced as the man's trademark mustache, but even back then as a pre-teen I felt the singer, songwriter and storyteller extraordinaire seemed a bit less cool than David Bowie, Marvin Gaye or other musicians on the radio at the time.

So, I find it pleasantly surprising that the man who wrote "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," "You Don't Mess Around with Jim," "Roller Derby Queen" and other lasting character studies is sort of hip in 2018. Specifically, his songs resonate with fans of the folk-punk genre. Croce died an untimely death 45 years ago this month and I've had personal occasion to think about him lots over the last week. I wanted to know why so many folk-punk millennials find his work compelling a half-century from when the songs were written. So, I went right to the source and asked on a Facebook folk-punk community chat board.

“His music reminds me of traveling and being free,” said Croce fan Kerri Knight. Knight’s take is an obvious reason devotees of acts like Mischief Brew and Pat the Bunny, who sing of nomadic wanderlust, would find affinity with Croce.

Last week, I was driving back home from my son's wedding in Seattle, a four-day trip by car, and I had the urge to dial up "I Got a Name" on Spotify. The natural beauty of the western United States – or something else – prompted me to play that tune, one of the best road trip songs ever recorded, complete with a “movin' me down the highway” chorus. I didn’t realize until later that it was September 20, 45 years to the day Croce died in a plane crash. The song I was listening to was released, as scheduled, on September 21, the day after the accident.

I don’t know Knight, but her Facebook profile pic depicts a young, fresh face. I asked why a new generation of fans her age finds Croce’s work satisfying.

“I listened to ‘Photographs and Memories’ the other day - the lyrics are still so relevant, mainly because I'm such an old soul and a hopeless romantic,” she said. “He died too young, man.”

“You don't have to be of any age or musical preference to enjoy his music,” said Samuel Aiton, drummer for the California punk act G.O.A. “Just like CCR, it's music you can't help but love every time you hear it.”

Some Croce fans delved directly into the songwriter’s lyrics, which are sometimes comedic and sometimes poignant psychological profiles. They're a big reason Croce still gets new fans daily.

"If 'Operator' doesn't tug at your heart strings, you simply aren't human,” decreed Silas Armstrong, who, until just recently, ran The Foxhole, an Indiana performance space that served as a show venue and a safe place for hundreds of touring acts to rest their weary heads, just the sort of place Croce might have loved.

“On the surface it’s a song about betrayal, but it goes much deeper. It speaks of forgiveness and the need for human relationships, whether they be platonic or romantic," Armstrong continued. "After coming home from the war (Vietnam) to find his girlfriend and best friend shacked up, he tries to contact them, simultaneously spilling his guts to the operator. He's confused about his own emotions, something we can all relate to. It has the feeling of a man on the verge of a breakdown yet still somehow manages to capture a sliver of beauty from his tragic moment. Finally, he tears up and can't finish the call. ‘Forget about this call,’ he tells the operator. The feeling of futility and hopelessness is resounding and almost overwhelming. I often wonder how this semi-fictional short story resolves. The truth is it was the story of many men and boys (and women) who risked it all only to be forgotten at home and had many different endings.”

“His song ‘Lover’s Cross’ articulated everything I was going through leading up to my separation and crystallized that what I was experiencing was not okay, normal or acceptable,” fan Kevin Fuller explained. “He put it in a language that spoke to the part of me that needed the strength to get out.”

Every time the time was right all the words just came out wrong, so I'll have to say I love you in a song,” quoted  Avi, another fan of Croce’s lyrics and a dedicated folk-punk follower and venue runner from San Antonio. “It reminds me of missed opportunities in the past and my kids when I was partying too much when they were younger. Really hits me when I'm alone and I hear that song.”

Some fans, like me (and, my own daughter - a favorite of hers? “Working at the Car Wash Blues”) got hooked from hearing their parents repeatedly play the songs.

“My mother jammed him while I was growing, his short lived life is very sad considering what he was bringing the music industry,” said Steven Deleon, bassist for Baytown rock/hip-hop act, Lost Cause. “’Time in a Bottle’ is exactly what it says it is, timeless, the song will never be old.”

And that’s really the crux of why Croce remains a favorite of we who were around during his brief life and times and to those who have followed since. His songs do what the best of art does by speaking to the frailties we share, endure and overcome. They remind us of our strengths. They make us grin when we consider the colorful characters we know or have encountered along the way. They’re about what it means to be human, an idea that has not markedly changed in the 45 years Jim Croce's been gone. Best of all, they keep us rolling’ down the highway and moving ahead so life won’t pass us by.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.