I spoke with Joe Grushecky about his extensive career making music with his band, the Iron City Houserockers; on his own, through an extensive and impressive catalog of solo recordings; and with luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen and many others. Joe is not unlike his music: straightforward, socially conscious, and with great empathy for those facing hard times. In Joe’s case, he also works outside of music to make a difference – he works with special needs children and as you’d expect, doesn’t back down from taking on the hardest cases.
After over 40 years making music, Joe is still going strong -sometimes on his own, and sometimes fronting Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. He has a new solo album ready to drop, a live Houserockers album on the way, and numerous other projects on the horizon. The Houserockers continuously tour - make sure you check them out. And make sure you check out Joe’s website to learn more about his iconic career – and to gain easy access to Joe’s great music.
Monte: I’m a guy from Pittsburgh; it's near and dear to me, and I’ve seen it’s ups and downs. So I’d like to start off by asking, where did you grow up in Pittsburgh, and what led you to music?
Joe: Most of my songs have a setting. A lot of those settings are here in Pittsburgh. I grew up in Westmoreland County, in coal-mining country. Both sides of my family were coal miners. We didn’t have much money and music was always a big part of their lives. My dad had bands when he was younger. He played Greensburg radio, when everything was live before the war. He played old time country music, and swing music. My mother was really into ethnic music – Serbian music. I had a couple aunts and uncles that grew up in the early 1960s and they were really into that early rock and roll. So we just loved music, and it was always a huge source of entertainment and communication, and community.
Pittsburgh in those days had (mostly) AM stations. From Friday night about 6 to Sunday evening, all these AM stations had disc jockeys who would play really obscure rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and really hard core stuff. There was WAMO, a station in Greensburg, one in Monroeville, WZUM in the North Side…the disc jockeys were Terry Lee, Charlie Appel, Mad Mike, there were other guys. They would play this obscure music you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. STAX and Motown and all that stuff…the Stones and the Beatles were too mainstream! You’d hear that on regular radio, and then you’d hear this other stuff from these disc jockeys.
At the same time there were all these teen nightclubs and they would play the obscure Pittsburgh stuff, but they always had acts. I saw Wilson Pickett, Bo Diddley, Sam the Sham and the Pharohs, Mitch Ryder, Junior Walker, the list goes on and on.
So when the Beatles and the Stones came around, everybody bought guitars and that was pretty much it. I was one of those guys, when I got a guitar in my hands, I said “this feels right, this is what I want to do.” It was almost an immediate thing. When I got the guitar, I wanted to be a full-time musician. So I pursued that, with varying degrees of success, for the last 50 years.
Monte: What made you write about the things that you did, as opposed to girls, and cars, going on dates, and things like that?
I thought the songs that I wrote that were rooted in reality were much better than my flights of fancy. I just tried to write about what I knew.
Monte: And how did you form the Iron City Houserockers?
Joe: (My band) was playing at an after hours club. It was in a very, very tough part of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was very tough in those days! We’d start playing at 2 in the evening and play until 5 in the morning. Mostly blues, rhythm and blues…I was never a top 40 guy. I was playing with just a bunch of guys I had played with on and off throughout the years. The original harmonica player was a big black gentleman named Jimmy King and he had been my closest partner for years.
Art came to me and said “let’s start a band.” I said, well only if we can try to get a record deal. I was starting to (think), I’m never going to get out of these clubs, I need to make some kind of move. And there was no record industry here in Pittsburgh. Those were the days where you recorded songs, sent out demo tapes, and more often than not people would at least give you a response. Going into the studios was an expensive proposition, so we saved up our money playing and doing whatever, to finance recording sessions.
Finally we got a call from Steve Popovich, with Epic. Steve was a Western Pennsylvania guy. He could hear our roots in the music I was writing. We did a couple demo sessions for him and he signed us. We made a few personnel changes, (bringing in) more dedicated musicians because we became very focused on getting a deal and the record out. That was a lifelong dream of mine.
At this time we were called the Brick Alley Band. Steve hated that name and said we had to change it. We started calling ourselves the Houserockers then. He put the Iron City (in front) because he wanted us to be identified with this region. I probably should have put Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers, because when (that version of) the Iron City Houserockers did break up, I had to start up all over again. I had zero name recognition. Everybody knew who the Iron City Houserockers were but Joe Grushecky was still unknown.
So we put out (our first album), Love’s So Tough. It got great reviews, it surprised everybody. It was hard to tour then, it was right in the midst of the gas rationing and all that. Our goal was to get another record out as soon as possible. So that came out in May of 1979, and by February we were in the studio recording what came to be one of our classic records, Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive. By this time Steve had hooked us up with Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter and Steve Van Zandt. The critics just went crazy over us. We could never get on the radio though. That was one of the problems for our band. I don’t know whether it’s because we didn’t have the right songs…in those days the record companies used to buy their way on to the radio, nobody seemed to want to do that for us.
Monte: The name caused you some heartaches at times…
Joe: Pittsburgh and Cleveland had very intense rivalries in football. We’d go to Cleveland and they’d say, “Ladies and gentlemen, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” and everybody would start to boo! Then we’d come out and they’d cheer for the music. We did play in Baltimore the night after the Pirates won the World Series (in 1979, against the Baltimore Orioles). We came out after, and they had slashed all our tires. We played in Pittsburgh the night we won, it was a wild night.
Monte: So things looked promising…
Joe: The record came out in 1980 and we were really critically acclaimed. We started realizing that we didn’t know anything about the business end. By the next record, we were sort of feuding with our business management and MCA Records hooked us up with Steve Cropper. I should note that the (next) album, Blood on the Bricks, there’s a remastered version on our website right now, you can download it, I think that was our finest hour as a band. Steve was an incredible musician to work with and he brought out the best in our playing. The arrangements were really excellent.
Monte: You’ve had a pretty enduring lineup. Art Nardini has been with you from the beginning.
Joe: Art and I started the band. Guys have come and gone over the years…our drummer Joffo Simmons has been with us since 1984.
Monte: He’s a great drummer. Very straightforward, in the groove, and there when you need him.
Joe: Oh yeah, we like to think of ourselves as a groove band, a pocket band. We like to play in the pocket.
Monte: It’s great continuity. And when I watch the videos of you and Art, you guys are just completely in sync. It’s like you’re one unit.
Joe: We’ve been playing together a long time, and we really enjoy what we’re doing. We really appreciate the fact that we’re still able to do it. So yeah, it’s really a nice thing. We’ve very comfortable playing with each other.
Monte: You have family in the band now, right?
Joe: Yeah, my son plays with us. Many of us have been together since 1984…Art and I have been playing together since 1976 so it’s literally a family affair. We’re like brothers. There’s a lot of comfort there and we feel very confident in what we’re doing. It’s a really nice situation to be in.
Monte: What makes the Iron City Houserockers such a special band?
Joe: We’ve stuck to our guns all these years. Go back and listen to those old records. Some are better than others, but none are embarrassing. I mean, we just played American Babylon. We did that 20 years ago, and we just recorded it this summer, live. The songs just stand up. I think it’s a combination of caring about what we’re playing, and being strong musically, but also the subject matter that we write about. People, families, communities…we do have a point of view. We are socially conscious. We give a lot back to the community. We’ve been involved in numerous charities over the years, we’re raised millions and millions of dollars for charity. None of us are rich by any means…there’s a certain amount of integrity that goes with the band that I think people pick up on.
Joe: We’ve been (playing together for) so long. I think when we started people thought it was a novelty, but we’ve been doing it a while now. Bruce and I have a lot of mutual respect for each other. I appreciate all he’s done for us over the years, and I think he gets inspiration from playing with us too. I think it brings him back to his roots. We just did a couple hours with him at Asbury Park. We’ve done (several) concerts (here in Pittsburgh), he comes down and plays with us at Soldiers and Sailors Hall. It’s a special affair for us to play with him in Pittsburgh.
Monte: How did your relationship with Bruce get started?
Joe: Steve Van Zandt worked on Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive. He introduced us to Bruce. One day I was in Los Angeles with our record company, and they sent me an article where Bruce said we were one of his favorite bands. Then we hooked up one night in New Jersey and we just hit it off. We’re brothers by different mothers, you know? He and I have collaborated on several songs.
Monte: How do you differentiate between your approach to your solo work, as opposed to your work with the Houserockers?
Joe: It’s pretty much different parts of a whole. When I write for the band I try to tailor the music to the strengths of our playing. Some songs work better than others band wise. When I do music for myself, it frees me to work with different musicians, occasionally, and that’s always fun. And I work at my own pace…it’s the flip side to the same coin.
Monte: Your last solo album, Somewhere East of Eden, is a fantastic record.
Joe: I'm really proud of that record.
Monte: What’s next?
Joe: I’m getting ready to release a record called It’s In My Song. There’s new songs on it, but I went through my catalog, and we did some of the songs that I felt were overlooked – some of the lyrics, some of my poetry. I did them in different settings, mostly stripped down affairs, some just me on acoustic guitar, some a little more. That’ coming out shortly, within a couple weeks. Then also I have two nights recorded live at the Stone Pony that’s almost done. That’s killer live versions of songs. I also started a band record that’s on the back burner. I have about 15 or 20 songs started for a band record. So I’ve got a lot of stuff coming. I like to keep moving.
Monte: When you look back at your career, what do you think? What would you like people to know about Joe Grushecky and his music?
Joe: I love playing music. I’m one of these guys that loves playing no matter what. I like to write. It’s part and parcel of who I am. It’s how I look at the world. It was always my dream to make a record. After I made the first record, everything else has been icing on the cake. I would have liked to have had a hit record. It certainly would have been easier to keep going if you have a hit. But I’m proud of what we’ve done. I’ve worked with Steve Van Zandt, Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter, Steve Cropper, and Bruce Springsteen – and what can you say about those guys? One is as great as the other.
I have my music heard all over the world, and I still get to play. I’m very grateful!
Monte: And you played in October, when they were getting ready to blow up the Greenfield Bridge, right?
Joe: Right! One of the more interesting things in my career!
Monte: What are others?
|Soldiers and Sailors Hall, Pittsburgh|
It can be easy to be bitter – “why is this guy on the radio and I wasn’t?” – but you know, I play the music I want to hear and basically I’ve been able to do that my entire career without having to compromise too much. Not at all the last 20 years. I’ve been pretty lucky keeping it all afloat and doing what I want to do.
Monte: One last thing – I wanted to tell you how highly I think of the work you do outside of music.
Joe: Thank you…I’ve worked in Special Ed…my expertise I guess is working with the kids that no one else wanted to work with. I worked with profoundly retarded kids, I went into the mental institutions here in Western Pennsylvania. I can tell you stories that will make your hair stand on end. I worked with Autistic kids, I worked with juvenile offenders, I worked with the inner city kids…the kids no one else wanted to work with.
I sort of just fell into it. I wanted to play music but I promised my father that I’d go to college. I had a couple cousins who were into special ed at the time and I didn’t know anything about it. I’ve had a major impact on some of these kids’ lives, so it goes without saying that that is a tremendous thing to do for somebody.
Monte: Thank you Joe - and thank you for all you've done for music in Pittsburgh!
And here's Joe at the Wonder Bar in New Jersey in July, where he was joined by Bruce Springsteen for a two hour show:
Note: Another friendly suggestion to be sure to check out Joe's website, for great information, tour dates and access to his great music. And here's a taste of the band, performing their well-known song Junior's Bar at Pittsburgh's New Hazlett theatre:
And here's Joe at the Wonder Bar in New Jersey in July, where he was joined by Bruce Springsteen for a two hour show: