Joe Grushecky thought he was making some progress on what would be his next album with his band, the Houserockers. Then he ran it by his son.
"I got news for you — it sucks," the 70-year-old rock-and-roll lifer says from his home in Pittsburgh, quoting the blunt message from his son, Johnny, 29, who is also a member of his band.
And more: "I expect more out of you. … The songs are terrible. There's nothing to latch on to."
Given that jolt of tough love, the elder Grushecky says, he went back to work and quickly wrote seven new numbers. They included what would become the title track, the reflective "More Yesterdays than Tomorrows," and the anthemic "That's What Makes Us Great," which became a duet with his longtime pal and collaborator Bruce Springsteen.
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Johnny Grushecky turned out to be a master motivator. More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows is one of the best albums of Joe Grushecky's career, a career that has been perennially underappreciated since the '70s, when he was leading the then-Iron City Houserockers and turning out brawny, blue-collar rockers like "Pumping Iron" and "Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive."
He and the Houserockers will be playing material from throughout that career in two shows Friday: the Free at Noon program at World Cafe Live and an evening show at the Sellersville Theater. (At the latter, be sure to check out the opener, the Dave Goddess Group, another top-notch rock outfit.)
Don't be fooled by the title of the new album. While More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows is informed by a sense of mortality, it is far from a downer. As Grushecky notes wryly, "This is a record that took some living to write," and the title song in fact sets the tone for an album that burns defiantly with resilience and hope: "When I get up in the morning, it's a brand new day," declares the coal miner's son, who still works as a special-ed teacher at an inner-city high school.
Grushecky and the Houserockers can deliver swaggering bar-band rockers like "Got to Go to Work Today" and "Blood, Sweat and Beers," and they can shift gears deftly for the romantic, Drifters-like ballad "One Beautiful Night."
The album also includes what the songwriter calls his "three-pack on our state of disunion" — "Burn Us Down," "Hell to Pay," and "That's What Makes Us Great."
The last one is most obviously a rebuke of President Trump, who really earned the rocker's antipathy when he mocked a disabled reporter.
"I've worked with special-needs people all my life. I have special-needs people in my family," Grushecky says. "I found it extremely insulting personally."
Typically, however, Grushecky does not just rage but steers the focus toward reminders of America's better nature, even invoking Reagan's image of a shining city on a hill.
"It's easy to work up a great anger," he says. "But you have to frame that anger, offer alternatives,, or you're just playing into the hands of the people running things now."
As soon as he played it for Springsteen, he says, "he was in right away."
The only non-original on the album is a fiercely rocking take on the traditional "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down)." It fits neatly into the set's fighting spirit and also reflects Grushecky's recent interest in the blues — he had even considered doing a blues album before More Yesterdays took shape.
As for still juggling teaching and playing music, Grushecky has no thoughts of slowing down, since he still finds fulfillment in both. He counts his blessings, not his burdens.
"I still have the passion for playing," he says, "and I'm very fortunate that I'm able to do it. I enjoy it now more than ever. I tell people, 'I'm finally getting the knack of it.' "
In fact, on the album, he calls himself "A Work in Progress" — "I get a little bit better every day." And it's not just a song lyric.
"I really believe that."