Fans of Joe Grushecky know him for his late ’70s/early ’80s work as the main motor of the Pittsburgh-based Iron City Houserockers. But he’s also enjoyed success for his string of solo albums that have been categorized as “Heartland rock” alongside the likes of
Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and John Mellencamp. There’s considerable justification for linking Grushecky to this working class, blue collar tradition. For example, Grushecky has co-written songs with Springsteen that appeared on the former’s American Babylon (1995) and East Carson Street (2009). Speaking of East Carson Street, I’ve never understood why it wasn’t a monster hit. It had everything any hard-driving rockin’ fan should crave.
The same is true of Grushecky’s new Somewhere East of Eden, another example of how this school-teaching rocker puts the heart into heartland. According to a press release for the album, Grushecky described the inspirations for the album thusly:
“I began to focus on telling a story. I wanted to write
about my life right now, about a man who is getting older and lives and works in
a community where people struggle daily and nothing is ever guaranteed. I wanted
to write about the kids who are often neglected and the veterans who are often
forgotten. I wanted to write about my life as a teacher and about the future
that we are handing to our children. And I wanted to write about going out on a
Friday night, plugging in a guitar, and turning it up to ten! I feel it in my
Lyrically, Grushecky indeed walks down all those streets on Somewhere. The title song, while evoking the John Steinbeck novel, media adaptations of it, not to mention many other rock songs called “East of Eden,” is about an Iraq War veteran and his turmoils when he returns home to Pennsylvania. “Who Cares About Those Kids” deals with the stresses of growing up on the tough side of town. The gentle album closer, the acoustic “The First Day of School” is all about that milestone as first told from the student’s point-of-view, then from the youngster who has grown up to be the one imposing all the rules.
An ironic look at aging is “Still Look Good (For Sixty)” with humorous lines remembering what once was (being “frisky”) and what is now (“frisky” turned “risky”). On the same theme, the more musically adventurous “Changing of the Guard” is a warning that everything old has seen its day, and a younger generation is now coming into their own. But in “Prices Going Up,” that change isn’t for the better, especially for workers unable to keep up with the costs of modern America.
Along the way, Grushecky isn’t giving us bitter pills dripping with the depression blues, but rather is affirming the strength and will of America, and this means an America that knows how to rock. That’s evident in the opening track, “I Can Hear the Devil Knocking,” a song already getting Pittsburgh airplay, and for good reason. If you need evidence a 60-year-old rocker can still knock out the hard balls with the best of them, “I Was Born to Rock” will teach the up-and-comers how it’s done.
But several songs demonstrate Grushecky’s range is far wider than barroom crunchers. The a cappella “John the Revelator,” with only thumping percussion supporting the harmonies, is Grushecky’s rather faithful rendition of the old standard, perhaps best known for similar versions by Harry Belafonte and Son House. The Latin-flavored “When Castro Came Down from the Hills” is perhaps the most surprising choice, with the story set in Cuba in 1958 when Fidel Castro was still seen as a Messianic revolutionary for his people. Finally, there’s a very soulful reworking of The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” which is just the sort of number you’d think a 60-year-old rocker would look back on with obvious affection.
Somewhere East of Eden has everything a Joe Grushecky devotee should expect and enjoy. It also has everything needed to draw in new listeners from any generation. Grushecky has songs for everyone, unless, of course, there’s no rock and roll soul in your bones. If there is, well, let Somewhere East of Eden introduce you to one of the most underexposed blues rockers out of the Heartland.