Dec 132008

Among rock nerds Jim Croce seems to be a rare, successful singer-songwriter from the ’70s who’s hard to hate? Some of his contemporaries, like Jackson Browne, have achieved greater critical acclaim from the post-Me Decade crowd, yet there are those unwilling to forgive the heap of Psychic Oblivion he laid on that generation. Although Croce’s hit songs include the wedding dance with Dad staple “Time in a Bottle,” you never hear people like us cut on Croce, do you?

Among Croce’s soft-rock contemporaries, only James Taylor comes close in not having made enemies. In the case of both artists I think their avoidance of trends, their sense of decency and taste, and overall “class” contributed to their acceptance over time and regardless of mixed feelings any of us might have about their popular acceptance and airplay saturation. (The respect we have for Taylor’s soft rock also probably has something to do with the guy’s graceful acceptance of his baldness.) The other thing I think they had in common is that they were clearly fine musicians. It’s hard not to respect fine musicianship, especially when it’s presented in an unadorned fashion. Croce, especially, came off as a “musician’s musician.”

Apart from the psychic drama of the short life of Nick Drake, we also got the clear impression of fine musicianship, taste, decency, and class. I’ve never been the type to plunge into trying to learn the finger-picking styles in the music of either Drake or Croce, but it’s my understanding that each man’s music included a distinct, difficult, personal style that is both challenging and satisfying for those who try to learn it.

I don’t know that it’s happened yet, but with more personal problems and fewer record sales could Jim Croce have been America’s answer to Nick Drake?


  21 Responses to “Critical Upgrade: With More Personal Problems and Fewer Record Sales, Could Jim Croce Have Been America’s Answer to Nick Drake?”

  1. diskojoe

    Mr. Mod, I don’t know about James Taylor being universally loved. He was the target of one of Lester Bangs’ most famous essays & some of those hit single covers he did were pretty inferior compared to the glory of the originals.

    As for Jim Croce being the American Nick Drake, that’s pretty interesting. All I really know about Jim Croce was the hit singles which I remembered from when I was a kid. Are there any Deep Cuts, as you put it, from Jim Croce albums to make the case? Somehow, I can’t see Nick Drake doing a song like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”. Another thing I like to point out is that Jim Croce didn’t have a distinctive voice that Nick Drake had that was breathy, and upper-class tinged.

  2. dbuskirk

    It’s been interesting to me that Croce’s name is rarely bandied about when 70’s singer-songwriters are discussed, perhaps because he did have such success (I’m guessing he had more charting singles than James Taylor had at the time of his demise). I think Taylor is a good comparison, if you can image him going down right after SWEET BABY JAMES and before he became the essence of lite-rock radio. I don’t think shares the artsy/introspective qualities of Nick Drake but is maybe closer to John Prine in his prime, with a more ingratiating voice.

    The greatest hits collection PHOTOGRAPHS & MEMORIES is mainly what I’m familiar with, but all the non-charting songs like “Lover’s Cross” and “New York’s Not My Home” are memorable with their concise lyrics that narrowly escape sentimentality.

    The song that always grabs me, no matter how many times I hear it is the chart-topping “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)”, which I think is pretty masterful in its storytelling. The more humorous working class character studies like “Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Leroy Brown” seem a little forced to me now but Croce was at least a legitimate working class hero, working in construction and teaching before fame hit him.

    And for me it is that voice, which always seems to be confiding in you like an old friend, that gives him his magic. It’s a small catalog, just a handful of albums, but at least he checked out before the inspiration went south. And he was born in Philly to boot!

  3. underthefloat

    I was a kid but he was my fav artist at the time. I totally agree with the previous comment that the humorous fast paced songs overall seem dated and forced now. But his more introspecitve songs in particular are just terrific. I do want to add that his sound was in part per the warm guitar playing and backing vocals of Maury Muehleisen. In fact one of my fav Croce songs is actually one Maury wrote “Salon and Saloon” (what a song).
    Originally, Jim was back up to Maury but that didn’t last long. Maury put out one album called “gingerbreadd” (yes, with two “d’s”). This disc was FINALLY rereleased 1-2 years ago. His sister has a web site and is who worked to get the disc released again. Check out song samples at

    Maury also died in the plane with Jim. Another huge loss that day.

  4. underthefloat

    PS- Speaking of James Taylor…

    Question: Recently I almost picked up the solo disc of James Taylor with “Fire and Rain” on it. I love that song. Does the rest of the album come close to matching it’s greatness. His later career bites so bad I just couldn’t take the leap of faith.

  5. hrrundivbakshi

    My dad knew Jim’s wife, Ingrid — she was the Costa Rican Minister of Culture. So that puts me, what, three degrees away from Jim!

  6. dbuskirk

    Thanks for the tip on Maury Muehleisen, I’d never realized his role in the J.C. sound and his record is pretty sweet if a little same-y. Pretty nice, for a Trenton-bred Glassboro State student.

    As for SWEET BABY JAMES, I wouldn’t say it is full of tunes at the level of “Fire & Rain” but it does beautifully sustain that song’s mood. It is still lite-rock but maybe it is THE transcendent lite-rock moment. Beware exploring his catalog much further (although I have a weakness for the JT album).

  7. BigSteve

    Throwing out a couple of ideas:

    Is Croce’s Look part of the problem when it comes to maintaining his reputation?

    When you’re a serious songwriter who occasionally uses humor and you get hits with what are basically novelty songs, your reputation as an artist suffers. Ask Randy Newman.

    The singer-songwriter world is a tight circle, and you can read in interviews the regard they have for each other. Croce seemed always to have the respect of his peers. I thought the deference Elvis Costello showed Elton John on TV last week was interesting to observe.

    History is written by the rockers, and Croce’s live presentation — singer/guitarist with lone backing acoustic guitarist — is too Cat Stevens to survive subsequent rock criticism.

  8. Not much of a comparison here: I don’t think Croce has the distinct style that Drake has. And Croce’s songs don’t have the emotional complexity of Drake’s songs.

    To name just one example, “Pink Moon” doesn’t follow the kinds of singer-songwriter traditions (like a narrative with a thematic chorus) that inform Croce’s work.

  9. hrrundivbakshi

    Never mind all that. The REAL question is: is Ben Folds America’s answer to 1970s Elton John?

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Good stuff to read after a day away. When I posed this question, I was not harboring answers. I knew it was a reach, but it’s good to see that only Dr. John shot down my query:)

    I can’t speak for any Croce deep trax. I only know the hits, but I do recall a Jim Croce Songbook that serious students of folk guitar stylings used to pour through in my high school days. His guitar arrangements looked very complex and detailed. The book had lots of notations, like that Who songbook from my teenage years that I regret buying when it was available. Who knows, maybe both books are still out there. After 30 years of not taking much time learning other people’s music, I don’t know that I’d do any better today.

  11. I think the deal with Jim Croce is that he came across as — and by all accounts, genuinely WAS — one of those rare creatures in Rock, a really nice guy. An equivalent would be Fats Domino, not James Taylor, who — at least around New England — is generally thought of as kind of a tool, although people tend to have nice words for both Kate and Livingston.

    So this afternoon at my friend JO’s annual Christmas party, I met a guy who spent the 70s building custom synthesizers for Sun Ra and Todd Rundgren. Interestingly, he claims that Rundgren is not in fact a total flaming asshole. God knows he’s always seemed like one.

  12. dbuskirk

    A mustachioed-guy named Joe Epperson briefly had a car radio installation business in my dank little South Jersey town that had a small wall of LPs. I hung out there for a while (copped a GET HAPPY stand-up!) and he told me stories of how he went to Upper Darby High and gave Todd Rundgren his original guitar lessons.

    Years later, I was at the Fillmore re-opening party (’95? w/ the Neville Brothers) and at the party upstairs was TR, wearing fluorescent Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and a whole twenty-old old skater look with two aging model types hanging on him like wet towels. This is near the end of the night but word was he’d been in that pose for hours now. It seemed too invitingly ludicrous no to join so I walked over and apologized for breaking in but I said I had an Upper Darby question. “Whooow, I’m all ears” he said, humoring me.

    “When I was a kid, a guy in my town always said he gave you your first guitar lesson…”

    “Was that guy’s name “blank blank” (lost to time)??

    “no…. Joe Epperson……”

    “Well, your friend is a liar! Ha-Ha-Ha!…” They all laughed.

    I had a barber who told us he wrote the Rod Bernard song “This Could Go On Forever”. He was lying too.

  13. I always lumped Croce in with Harry Chapin and not the Jackson Browne crowd.

    And if we’re looking for an American answer to Nick Drake then I nominate Elliott Smith…

  14. trolleyvox

    Is this from the mythical Keith Moon variety hour?

  15. saturnismine

    whenever i hear a deep cut by croce, i shake my head in amazement.

    that guy was snuffed out at the height of his powers. he was writing from a gift.

    of course, had he been allowed to continue, he would’ve found his limitations, but the three albums he made (and the posthumously released home recordings and live album) are at a pretty high level throughout, over a range of emotions, too.

    he’s too much of a guy’s guy (and too versatile) to be comparable to nick drake (who, obviously, didn’t have it in him to come up with a song like “leroy brown” or “roller derby queen”).

    maybe ronnie lane’s acoustic stuff is comparable if we’re trying to find a british analog? it had humor, but was capable of the same flirtation with trite sentimentality without reaching treacly depths (though I suppose that is a matter of opinion).

  16. underthefloat

    Croce’s deeper cuts are often as good or better then the hits (OK, Operator is one of his very best tracks).

    Deeper cuts:

    Photographs and Memories
    Box, no 10
    A long time ago
    One less set of footprints
    These Dreams
    Dreamin Again
    It doesn’t have to be that way
    Lover’s Cross
    Salon and Saloon
    The hard way everytime

    You know as I look back at his albums I think one could argue that each was a bit better then the one that came before it.

  17. pudman13

    I dunno. The problem with US singer songwriters is that their albums were so erratic. I’ve listened to many by many artists, including Taylor, Croce, Chapin, etc… and none of them keep me awake from start to finish with a few odd exceptions: Randy Newman’s 12 SONGS, Dory Previn’s MYTHICAL KINGS AND IGUANAS, Barbara Keith’s self-titled album on Reprise. Jackson Browne’s albums keep my interest straight through despite being musically blah, mostly because he understood just how gross that time period really was and he came halfway between embracing it and being disgusted by it. Fascinating stuff.

    My vote for the US Nick Drake is Kathy Smith, who put out two briliant and unknown singer songwriter records in the early 70s, full of pain and longing but without self-pity, a really neat trick. She comes from the Judy Collins school of singing, but her music has a jazzy rock feel that works extremely well.

    Another unknown album that I have played dozens of times and always love is the one by Susan Pillsbury. I know absolutely nothing about her, but she made a whale of an album, one that really encapsulates Americana and is at times really heartbreaking and gorgeous.

  18. BigSteve

    Isn’t Townes Van Zandt the American Nick Drake? It’s just that he decided to kill himself slowly over the course of a couple of decades.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    What obscure, depressed American folkies DO Brits seek out to the degree we seek out Drake?

  20. saturnismine

    Mod, when a folkie friend of mine introduced me to the work of Nick Drake, it was on one side of a cassette tape with Skip Spence’s album “Oar” on the other. Spence wasn’t a folkie, but the pairing was perfect.

  21. diskojoe

    Mr. Mod wrote:

    What obscure, depressed American folkies DO Brits seek out to the degree we seek out Drake?

    I don’t know if this answers the question, but I did notice that the latest issues of both MOJO & Uncut had major stories on Leonard Cohen.

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