Music is a balm and a healthy distraction for A.J. Croce, who is no stranger to tragedy.
His famous father died when he was a toddler, he lost eyesight as a child by the hand of his abuser and sadly, his wife of 28 years, Marlo, passed away last summer.
His song, “Cures Just Like Medicine” was written for Marlo during what he called a “very difficult time” and was just nominated for Best American Roots Song for the 61st Grammy Awards.
Croce is coming to Hamilton on Saturday night as a guest of the Bitterroot Performing Arts Council and will be joined by a trio of accomplished musicians for an almost sold-out house (as of press time).
Croce said he played three shows in Montana last November but was plagued with sickness and a blizzard during his travels.
“So I’m really looking forward to returning to Montana and enjoying the beauty of the place this time,” he said.
Laurie Ruffner, BPAC Executive Director said this 15th season has been one of the most successful, not only because of the big names coming to town but because of community support.
“We could not bring such amazing artists to the Bitterroot without the generous support of our show sponsors and individual donors,” she said.
Hamilton will be the end of A.J.’s “Croce plays Croce” tour in honor of his father, Jim. But he said since he’s in the midst of creating two different albums, his performance at the piano on Saturday is bound to be eclectic.
In 30 years of playing and recording, the young Croce has published many albums in a variety of genres — pop, rock, blues and county.
“I was chasing a ghost in my early days,” he said. “I loved old jazz and blues and wasn’t really into anything that was on MTV at the time. I was always looking for something different.”
“I went through a costume rock period where everything had to look like it was 1965 — down to the exact instruments playing the music exactly right — including the same mistakes as they were recorded,” he said.
For many years, he played in garage bands that covered classics by the Beatles, Chuck Berry and Etta James. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder were always inspirations to A.J. who shared their same disability and their affinity for piano.
Then B.B. King heard him play.
“I was 18 and he liked the way I played,” he said. “He liked that I was into all the old stuff and so he invited me to go on the road with him and his band. I met him on the bus in Seattle and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been touring every since.”
A.J. finds himself in Nashville now, “the center of music,” he said. “I am in the heart of it, which has allowed me to do as much as I can creatively.”
He has played openings acts for Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Dave Matthews and Lyle Lovett, to name a few. He cherishes the interactions with so many great artists and the results he said, “are traditional elements in my music that still connect with contemporary times. It’s relevant to everyone and timeless — well, that’s my hope.”
He said all his life, he’s resisted the temptation to capitalize on his father’s name, despite the relentless invitations.
“I’ve had many opportunities to earn a living easily on his name, but I was too stubborn for that,” he said.
However, last August, the time was right. He released a special single of his dad’s 1973 hit, ”I Got A Name” with a project for Goodyear and a commercial featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr. The circumstances surrounding the project paralleled his father’s initial experience with the song in so many ways that A.J. couldn’t resist.
His current tour finishes out a memorial to his father that has brought rave reviews and iconic images of him replicating photos taken of his father.
“It’s been a good experience and it was time,” he said. “I feel very lucky. For all the stuff that has gone wrong in my life and the ways my faith has been tested, I remain an optimist. I’m open to the possibilities, thankfully. Otherwise I don’t think I would have had this experience with this song of my dad’s.”
The younger Croce is determined to not let tragedy define him.
“Life brings a lot of it,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences and done great things and had life experiences that were not tragic by any stretch of the imagination, but I did lose my father, lost my sight, I’ve had a house burn to the ground — but none of that has doused my passion to write and play music.
“Working on these two latest albums simultaneously has been really fun and therapeutic,” he said. “I’ve been in need of a distraction after a very difficult year and having music to help me is really a gift.”
For tickets to the Saturday show featuring A.J. Croce, contact the Bitterroot Performing Arts Box Office at 406-363-7946 or go to www.bitterrootperformingarts.org
Three shows remain in the 15th season of the Bitterroot Performing Arts Series and two are already sold out. Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop are playing in Hamilton on Jan. 12, and Judy Collins is performing April 12. Some tickets remain for the March 30 performance by Smuin Ballet.