Finding Joe Grushecky 'Somewhere East of Eden'

By Peter Lindblad

Joe Grushecky released Somewhere East of Eden
in fall 2013
Blue-collar through and through, just like his home city of Pittsburgh, Joe Grushecky is concerned about the soul-crushing struggles of the common man, just like his mentor, Bruce Springsteen.

A teacher who works and lives in the rougher part of the Steel City, Grushecky writes about people he encounters every day, whether they be kids from the wrong side of the tracks ("Who Cares About Those Kids") or Iraq war veterans trying to cope with regular life Stateside and the nightmarish memories of battle.

Grushecky lives to tell their stories, from the point of view of a man who is no stranger to hard-luck stories and a greying observer of the human condition in all its tattered and flawed beauty.

Somewhere East of Eden, released in October, is Grushecky's latest solo album, and it's a gritty, tuneful mix of raucous R&B and blues-flavored rock that brings a lunchpail to work. Recorded in Weirton, West Virginia, at longtime co-producer Rick Witkowski's Studio L, Somewhere East of Eden is Grushecky's 17th solo effort. Out on the Schoolhouse Records label and distributed by Warner Bros. Records Nashville, it boasts rowdy blues bashers like "I Can Hear the Devil Knocking" and "John the Revelator," but when Grushecky turns soulful on "Save the Last Dance for Me," there's not a dry eye in the place.

A true rock 'n' roll veteran with plenty of recordings to his credit, Grushecky was once a member of of the Iron City Houserockers, before going solo and getting the chance to work with The Boss. Springsteen not only produced Grushecky's 1995 solo album American Babylon, but he also co-wrote a couple of songs, contributed guitar on the record and even served a touring guitarist with the band.

Outside of music, Grushecky is known for his charitable endeavors, having served as an executive board member of the Light of Day Foundation, an organization that helped raise over a million dollars worldwide to fight Parkinson;s Disease at the 40+ Annual Light of Day Concerts in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Grushecky talked about his new record and his career in an e-mail interview recently.

What is the significance of the title Somewhere East of Eden and how does it relate to the Iraq War veteran who is the subject of the song? 
Joe Grushecky: I got the basic idea from an article I read about a returning vet. A lot of the details were verbatim from the article. “East of Eden” is one of my all time favorite books. The Garden of Eden was said to be in the Fertile Crescent of Iraq. As I read the veteran’s story he struck me that he was returning home from Somewhere East of Eden. That thought and phrase inspired me to write the song.

How would you describe the music for the "Somewhere East of Eden" LP? It seems to have a blue-collar quality to it.
JG: I’ve been tagged blue-collar my whole career. I think it stems from the fact that I write about the life around me which is distinctly from a working man’s point of view. I get up 4:30 every day and go to work! The music is my take on all the stuff I’ve listened to all these years.

This is your 17th solo album, and you decided to seek aid from fans to make it. Is it inspiring to you to see such tangible support from people who admire your work, and do you think this is the way many music artists are going to fund their projects in the future?
JG: It is the only way guys like me can reach a greater audience. I really enjoyed the process after being somewhat skeptical at first. We would not be doing this interview if not for the pledge drive enabling me to get a good publicist.

You were going to embark on recording an acoustic album of old R&B and soul stuff. What's the status of that project and how did it spark the creation of the new record? 
JG: I love learning and singing, so I was just going about my business recording old songs that I always loved. I did not have a coherent group of songs that fit together until I wrote  “Somewhere East Of Eden.” I used a solo stripped-down approach on “John the Revelator” and “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Playing those great old songs inspired me to write good ones of my own.

How does the Pittsburgh area and the lives of its people affect your writing? A lot of this record seems to highlight the struggles of ordinary people in your community.
JG: Well, I write about what I know. I am in the community working everyday in an economically disadvantaged area. It was easy to weave the fabric of that into these songs. I have always written about Pittsburgh. It is a unique city with a lot of character. Everything about it, including the music, was rough and tumble when I was growing up and a lot of that rubbed off on me.

Joe Grushecky playing live
For those who don't know about the Iron City Houserockers, what is the band's story and what happened to it?
JG: We started out in my basement and got signed by Steve Popovich to Cleveland International Records. He was a legendary record guy. We did four albums to great critical acclaim. We worked with great producers, including Steve Cropper, Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter, and Steve Van Zandt. We were the pride of Pittsburgh and a killer live band. We never had anything resembling a major radio song. We lasted until guys started to bail out to pursue other careers besides music.

How long have you and your producer, Rick Witkowski, been working together and why does the creative relationship you have together work so well?
JG: Rick and I are great friends, and we have different strengths that complement each other. He likes the Beatles and pop. I like the Stones and blues.

Bruce Springsteen produced your 1995 album, American Babylon, and even co-wrote a couple of songs and played on the record. What do you recall about the experience and what is he like to work with? Was it a transformative period for you?
JG: Bruce helped us at a critical time. We were pretty much dead in the water as far as our recording careers were going. I will always be grateful to him. He is one of the all-time bests. He is an extremely proficient musician. He can play anything and play it well. It was like playing baseball with Roberto Clemente. 

How have you changed or developed as an artist since American Babylon?
JG: I like to think I keep getting better. Sometimes I think I’m just starting to get the knack of it.

You work as a teacher and play on the weekends from the sound of it. Do the two interests impact each other in some ways?
JG: It is two completely different worlds! The teaching has allowed me to pursue my music by providing me with health benefits and a steady income. I have always worked in very poor schools so I’m not getting rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I never really had to play anything I didn’t want to.

What are your hopes for Somewhere East of Eden

JG: I hope as many people as possible listen to it.

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