Joel Crouse Chats Debut Album, Playing Bars at 15, and His Friendship with Darius Rucker

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Joel Crouse is no stranger to success. At 15, he and his band toured the east coast, playing in bars that Crouse was still years from being able to get into. He’s opened for stars like Taylor Swift and The Band Perry, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and had music featured in the CW’s Hart of Dixie. At 22, Crouse’s debut Even the River Runs is a classic-rock-infused pop country force of sharp writing and strong performance. Crouse sat down with us to talk about the release, some of his favorite music, and being on tour like friend and mentor Darius Rucker.

Debut album! Congratulations, it sounds great!

Thank you! It’s exciting, it’s really exciting.

How many years have you been writing this album now?

The first song I wrote for the album, I think I was 17… It was “You Could Break A Heart Like That.” Right before I first came to Nashville, I was living in Massachusetts, and I walked in on my girlfriend at the time and a college basketball player… rough times. He’s like 6′ 8″ and I was 6 feet. Barely. I was just like, there’s nothing I can do in this situation. So a few days later I went to Nashville and I had been writing a little bit with Jamie Houston – he wasn’t my producer at the time, but he is now – and we went in and he was just like, what’s going on man? So I tell him this story, and I think it was Tim Johnson, who’s recently passed last year due to cancer, but really good friend, he actually wrote three of the songs on there, “Slow Motion,” “You Could Break A Heart Like That,” and “I Never Said I Loved You.” It was the first time writing with him, and I told him that story, and Tim was just like man, you could break a heart like that, and that’s really how it came. So to answer your question, I worked on the record from about ages 17 to 20. I think I was just turning 20 right when we finished “If You Want Some,” which was the last song we wrote.

And then that was your first single, right?

Yeah. Kinda funny how that works.

Are there songs now that you’ve written so many years ago, that have changed in meaning for you now?

I think honestly yeah, there’s some tunes where, when I’m singing live… when you play these songs over and over again, like last year I think we did almost 150 dates, and like when I play the songs that often, I gotta just change the story of the song in my own head just to kinda still feel that emotional connection. But “Summer Love” is probably the second oldest song on that record and that’s probably still my favorite song to play live. So it’s cool to have tunes that old that still make you feel something.

The album has such a diverse sound; what influences were you inspired by?

I listen to everything. I always did listen to everything. I think the reason why we’re seeing so many sub-genres… I mean, country’s definitely not what it used to be, and in fact there’s like two different sub genres of country, and pop’s a free for all, rap’s not really what it was, and rock music isn’t what it was. You always see music evolving, and so I think this generation of artists, we had the internet growing up, we didn’t have to go to stores and buy CDs. Some of us still did, but for the most part we were just grabbing every type of music we could get on the internet.

So there’s always going to be different influences, but like who influenced me as an artist and like my sound would probably be Keith Urban, the Eagles, Tom Petty. I also loved the outlaws like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. But then as far as artists that I would just listen to kind of religiously outside of those guys… John Mayer, Eminem – I was a huge Eminem fan, still am – and bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and a lot of folk music too. So i’m all over the place, but there are certain artists that have inspired me to go different directions with my sound.

When you’re writing, are there certain things you will listen to, or can’t listen to? Do you take it all in, or block it all out?

I do notice that what I’m listening to the most recently tends to come out and I’m just like man… that’s not gonna fly. So yeah, there are times where I need to find stuff where I’m like yeah I kinda dig that guitar tone or I dig that lick there, what can I do to make it somewhat of my own. I was watching that CNN British Invasion and all those bands were taking stuff from each other! So I try to listen to stuff that I think would sound cool and usually it resonates and comes from early 70’s rock or probably some late 70’s country.

Do you start with a lick or lyric or what?

It’s anything really. When I first moved to Nashville, writing was more of a 10:30 am write, 10:30 to 4, and that was every day for me for a while. As an artist I wanna show that raw nerve and be a little more honest, so I try to write a little more when I’m inspired, and sometimes my emotions can bring me to a guitar lick first or a melody first or sometimes I can be a lyrical idea or just a whole story I need to tell, so there’s really no rhyme or reason to where the inspiration comes from. It definitely sparks and usually I end up bringing it to my producer or my guitar player or we finish it up. And sometimes when we go into co-writes people bring ideas to me and I’m like yeah lets finish that up, let’s try that out, that could be really cool and so it’s give and take. But you definitely find that connection with writers who you can be honest with.

This whole album I co-wrote with my producer and there was always a third party on it; you’ll see some of the same writers on some. When I first came to Nashville my songwriting sucked, like I was sixteen and I remember writing with some of these writers and feeling so discouraged. I’d come back to the hotel room to my dad and I was just like, I don’t know man, that’s not my thing, and he was like Joel, these guys are 50, and you’re 16, and I’m like how come I can’t write like that! But all these writes on this record have inspired me so much to become a better writer and now there are songs I’m writing that are by myself that I feel comfortable enough to play live or comfortable enough for a second album, so these writers definitely helped me through my learning curve and to bring my stories to life.

What brought you to Nashville initially?

I was in a band when I was 15.. I started playing guitar at 12, but when I was 15 I stared this band with my brother and two older friends of mine and we went up and down the east coast and just played bars. I was literally just 15 years old playing this hole in the wall bar in Massachusetts where I’m from.

Did they know you were 15?

[Pauses] I don’t know, because everyone else was at least over 18 or over 21. I remember my mom being at a show and there were these two drunk girls at the bar who were like, “we wanna buy you shots!” and my mom was like no. No. No. From then on my mom has just had to cover her eyes when I play bars. Obviously I didn’t take the shots.

But from 15 it was a really serious job of mine. Immediately I was like, I wanna set up a Myspace (this was when MySpace was big in music,) we have to get merch, and so was working towards this band thing and trying to make it work. I didn’t write any of the music, ‘cuz like I said, my songs sucked – it’s totally true. I even found an old notepad that was just awful – anyway, when I was about 16 I was going to New York City a lot because that was the closest music town too me, and I got introduced to Brandon Creed who was with Epic Records at the time and he now manages Bruno Mars, responsible for his whole career, so Brandon I actually thank in my album because he was the one who said, you should go to Nashville, and Nashville’s where I met Jamie, who ended up producing the record. So that’s who really told me you know, Nashville’s where you want to be.

You mentioned all the subgenres of country –

There are no limits, that’s the thing. You put a steel guitar in with a 90’s hip hop beat, it’s gonna work, because it’s got that steel guitar. 

In terms of the whole spread of genre, where do you see yourself?

I think this record is just going to have to fall in its place on its own. I can’t really put a genre on it because you’re right, there are different niches. I’d say it’s country/rock/pop, if I had to really, but there’s so much more beneath it, it’s more of a classic rock influence with a strong Keith Urban element. There’s inspiration from all over the place, but I think the Keith Urban/Eagles influence is what you’re gonna find the most, so it’s gonna fall in its place. I do know it’s not, you know, exactly where country is right now on the radio, but I kind of like it being a little bit fresh and a little bit just outside the box, but not so far out.

You’ve opened for Taylor Swift, and I read somewhere you opened for the Goo Goo Dolls? How did that come about?

That was just a one off gig at a festival, and their management said to my management, you might wanna keep the twang down. I laughed my ass off ‘cuz they’re from New York, they didn’t know I was from Massachusetts, and I wasn’t gonna go out there playing Hank Senior. But that was a fun gig ‘cuz I listened to the Goo Goo Dolls growing up, you know, they had plenty of hits and he was one of my favorite vocalists, Johnny was, so that was a great opportunity.

Another guy who’s really taken care of me and kind of become my mentor on the road is Darius Rucker – he gave me a gig in Dallas opening for him, 20 minutes, and then he gave me 4 dates in Cape Cod, all when I was 19. I went and did that, and it was like 30 minutes, and so we’re following him around on Cape Cod in my dad’s broke down mini van and it’s just awful and so busted and everything, and Darius is kinda chuckling. But after those 4 gigs which were at the end of August three years ago, he ended up putting us on his whole fall tour, put my guitar player and I on his band bus. So he’s just really taken care of us, his band’s taken care of us, and ever since then we’ve always got a least 15 or 16, 20 dates every year together. He’s my big brother for sure, he’s definitely taken care of me and helped me out with my first single, and just always talks about how he wast to help me get to that next level and it’s really cool.

The most unexpected thing you’d find on your iPod?

I think we jammed to Hilary Duff on the road last week.

New Hilary Duff, or?

Nah, it was “Beat of my Heart.” I had no idea what it was doing on there either, and I was like hey, let’s jam to this.

Grab the album, Even the River Runs, on iTunes, and connect with Crouse on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.