Joe Grushecky has heard there are political moments on “Letter to You,” the new album from his old friend Bruce Springsteen that’s coming out this week.
The Pittsburgh native — who’s fronted his group The Houserockers (born The Iron City Houserockers) nearly as long as The Boss has his E Street Band — has a good yardstick for measuring the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s mindset.
It’s because they worked together on “That’s What Makes Us Great,” a rabble-rousing song for The Houserockers’ 2018 indie disc “More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows.” It’s recently been reissued as a provocative pre-election single and video.
Steve Popovich Jr. re-released “More Yesterdays” in 2019 on Cleveland International, the imprint launched in 1977 by his late father which issued early Houserockers albums including 1980’s definitive sophomore recording “Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive!”
“Have a Good Time” was rereleased this year with a second 16-cut bonus-track disc that has demos and covers of Lightnin’ Slim’s “Rooster Blues” and a Ramones-speed updating of “Doo Wah Diddy.”
Grushecky — who’s in the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame — has a sandpapery rasp that pairs perfectly with Springsteen’s growl on the optimistic “Great” chorus, which counters the Republican notion that America needs to be made “great again.”
“After I wrote that song, it just struck me that it would be a great thing for Bruce to sing on,” says Grushecky, who first met The Boss when he dropped by a mid-1970s recording session to meet producer Mick Ronson. “So I sent him an acoustic version, and he liked it right away and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Grushecky — the son of a coal miner — grew up in Pittsburgh, where he resides today. He’s still stunned that Pennsylvania has become a pivotal election swing state, but he cites the joke that you have Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Arkansas in between.
“I don’t want to be disparaging toward any people, but it’s a lot of gun-rack-in-the-back guys,” he says of the mid-state populace, happy to still be part of the Democratic stronghold. “With the record and its video, we’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re all Americans here. There’s too much blue-state/red-state, us-vs.-them stuff going on. We should all be in this together, because there are certain things that everybody should agree on.’”
With 1989’s “Rock and Real,” Grushecky scratched “Iron City” from his outfit’s moniker; it had served its purpose, underscoring the steel-industry-founded town that gave him a strong work ethic and unique outlook on contemporary music. Top 40 hits weren’t necessarily favored in Iron City.
“It had its own little music scene, songs that were popular nowhere else in the world but Pittsburgh,” he says. The Spencer Davis Group, known for “Gimme Some Lovin,” was more famous locally for “High Time Baby.”
Grushecky says, “When I was a kid, you could go see Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels on a weekly basis, playing these clubs, and Bruce and Miami Steve (E Street guitarist Van Zandt) were doing the very same thing in New Jersey.”
When Grushecky the singer debuted his own combo on 1979’s “Love’s So Tough,” they followed in the footsteps of the E Street Band (whom Grushecky first heard on the “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”) not by choice, but on similarly-influenced gut instinct.
“When Steve Popovich, Sr. signed us, for our first album we basically just put down what we were doing in the clubs,” Grushecky says, adding “But for ‘Have a Good Time,’ we got more serious, went to New York City, started concentrating on the writing, and brought in Ronson, Ian Hunter and even Steve Van Zandt.”
Springsteen must have sensed a kindred “Born to Run” spirit in Grushecky, because the pair soon became not only fast friends, but songwriting collaborators, first on Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers 1995 album “American Babylon.”
But Grushecky also honored his father’s request that he get a college degree, which he still relies on as a special-ed teacher in Pittsburgh, just like his mother was.
His son Johnny, 31, who, when he was 8 played onstage with Springsteen, joined The Houserockers and launched his own pop outfit, Milly, as well.
Grushecky has never considered ending the Houserockers, mainly because his careers have dovetailed. His academic day job financed the first Iron City demos in the 1970s, and he’s had the freedom to organize benefit shows for underprivileged students.
“I’ll bring my band into school, we back up the kids, and the kids sing, while we get somebody to sponsor it and sell tickets, and we give all the money to the art department,” he says, citing a recent fundraiser that bought his institution all-new band uniforms after 34 years. “But I have to add, teaching pays some nice health benefits, too.”