By Rush Evans
A.J. Croce has been alive half again as long as his legendary musical father, Jim Croce. Indeed, he has lived even longer than that, as our interview took place on the musician’s 46th birthday (Jim Croce died in a plane crash at age 30 in 1973 at the peak of his popularity).
A.J. has always taken his own musical path, but with his new album, Just Like Medicine, he’s also embracing his musical roots by recording a Jim Croce song, as well. On his first album, released when he was just 22 years old, Croce had taken to a sound that predated him by many decades, as it recalled the New Orleans jazz of the form’s early days. By the time of his fifth album, he had a clearly Costello-esque sensibility, demonstrating a powerful pop sound that supported his ever-growing songwriting abilities.
With Just Like Medicine, his latest studio effort, a bit of a Stax soul sound emerges, not in a calculated manner but naturally, just as all his work to date has. All this really means is that A.J. is a gifted musician who also happens to listen to music of all types. A lot of it.
A.J. lives in Nashville, but Austin is a good town for him, and that’s where I would see him perform a few days after our chat. The show was just A.J. and a percussionist, and A.J.’s passionate piano playing really shined, though he also played a handful of songs on guitar, one of which was “These Dreams.” It was not one of his father’s most famous songs, but it might just be his best. The other representation of Jim’s music was that of a song that he never recorded. “Name of the Game” makes its first appearance ever on Just Like Medicine.
The decision to finally record a Jim Croce song was actually a wholly objective endeavor, not a calculated tribute. “I brought that in to Dan (Penn) like I brought everything in. I didn’t tell him who wrote anything. I didn’t tell him anything about the song. It just had to pass his test of whether it was a good song or not. And he picked it. It was really that simple. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than pick a song that was soulful and that I identified with.”
Dan Penn, songwriter and producer, enjoyed the connection upon learning that A.J.’s father had written that song, and the connection is strong, given that A.J. and his mother have worked hard over the years to preserve and expand the catalog of the late Jim Croce and his brief but extraordinary career. “Most of what you know of him happened in 18 months. He had a lot of different jobs, but he was a professional musician for 18 months, and in that 18 months, he was on fire. He wrote three amazing albums, and he was just starting to take off when he passed away. He sort of found his identity when he was in his late 20s. He was doing old Pink Anderson songs, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, even covered Merle Haggard, playing all kinds of things, soul music and early rock ‘n’ roll. And then out of the blue comes ‘Time in a Bottle.’ It’s completely different from anything else he had written, anything he had done with my mom on Capitol in the late ‘60s. You really see his identity in one little recording.”
I had read that “Time in a Bottle” was about A.J., the reflections of a new father as he dealt with the emotional experience of having a new child in this world. I asked A.J. if this is true. “It is. It was not just about me. I think it was about recognition of a moment in time when he really needed to either go for it and be a musician, 100%, or do something else. I think he was really trying in earnest to make this thing happen. So many good songs on that first record, and the second one came out six months later.”
That’s how it happened in the ‘70s. The time between releases was a matter of months, but in the 21st century, we’re accustomed to many years between albums for most artists, including A.J. But the diversity of sounds, the quality of the writing, and abundance of songs from the heart is something that both father and son share. And that is something of which Jim Croce would surely have been most proud.