Interview: A.J. Croce makes name for himself, like his daddy did

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has lived up to his name…in large part by making a name for himself.

The NASCAR champ will celebrate his family legacy this Sunday, Feb. 18, when he serves as Grand Marshal at the 60th running of the Daytona 500. The son of late racing legend Dale Earnhardt also appears in a television ad for Goodyear that pays homage to those who “Make a Name” for themselves by chasing their dreams—whether that means following in your father’s footsteps or carving your own path.

Fittingly, the touching T.V. spot [see link] features music by another noteworthy son-of-celebrity: A.J. Croce, who for three decades has wowed listeners with his jazzy piano playing on such releases as That’s Me in the Bar (1995), Fit to Serve (1998), and the new Just Like Medicine (2017).

Croce covers father Jim’s hit 1973 “I Got a Name” in the commercial, which follows young Dale Jr. (in archival footage and dramatic reenactments) while shadowing his pedal-pushing pops (not shown) at the races.

Like the senior Earnhardt (who died in a Daytona crash in 2001), Jim Croce’s life was cut short in an accident: He died in a plane crash when A.J. was just a toddler.

“I Got a Name” had only just hit the pop charts. But the ballad’s been with us ever since, and probably always will be.

We spoke with A.J. earlier this week about the advert, the significance of the song, and the importance of living up to one’s name on one’s own terms.

AXS: Tell us how the Goodyear ad came together, how you teamed up with Dale Jr. for the television spot.

A.J. CROCE: I was on tour when I got the call that Goodyear was interested in having me record the song. We had a kind of complicated conference—I was in Spain at the time—and I heard the basic idea of the spot. I thought it was brilliant, because here you had two people who grew up doing the same thing their parents did. It made perfect sense to me! The other thing about that particular song was that my father was in Boston when he first performed it. He didn’t write it; it was Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox who wrote it. But there was a lot about it that was personal to him, that related to his life there. Ironically, it also related to mine! So having the opportunity to contribute in that way and produce and perform the music seemed like fun. It was also the song that Dale Jr. most identified with in his career. So I totally understand!

AXS: You’re a noted pianist, whereas your dad played folk guitar. What was your approach for this version of “I Got a Name?”

A.J: I do play the song in concert. I do about a half-dozen shows a year where I do his music, along with twenty-five years of my stuff, and some of the things that connect us. Recording it, I only had a few days home from the previous tour before going into the studio. So I called up some of my friends who are some of the best players in Nashville. It’s Bryan Sutton on acoustic and Colin Linden on electric. I was going to play piano on it, like the original. But when I started playing the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer it sounded very soulful, and it filled that sonic space that needed to be filled. It made sense. It was a little bit different, but I liked it.

AXS: Did you have any input on the visual side of things, or was your music edited in later?

A.J: I was just involved in the music, creating and producing the music. So I wanted to record it to tape—the way it would’ve been done originally. That also gave me the technical opportunity to have that beautiful compression that you get on the two-inch tape that you don’t get on digital. As many spots as I’ve done, I know how they work with it and take out different pieces of the music and raise or lower the volume. So I took that into consideration. I felt that using analog was a way to pay tribute, but also be original.

AXS: It’s a Goodyear ad, but they’re not pushing any particular item. Rather, it’s a nice, feel-good message that ties in nicely with the lyrics of the song.

A.J: Right. It’s about making a name for yourself, regardless of what career you might have. A lot of people follow in the footsteps of their parents in one way or another. It’s no different for me. It’s happening all around us. When I started in music there wasn’t any “You can’t do that!” There wasn’t that kind of negativity about it. Of course, it took a lot of work. But it was just an enjoyable thing, and it did come naturally.

AXS: In some families there’s always a big push to inherit the family business, to “take over for dad” or become a doctor or lawyer just because it’s what they did. Less so these days, when there seems to be more support for people who want to spread their own wings. Although it is cool to do whatever your parents did if it’s something you’re skilled at or passionate about. Ideally, you want both!

A.J: Right! Absolutely. I’m all for it. You don’t have to stay in the family business. But it was something that came naturally for me. And the product—Goodyear—was something I could totally get behind, since I’ve driven vintage cars ever since I could drive anyway! And I still do to this day. So I actually use the product. So it was cool [laughs]! It was like, “Sure, I can get behind this!”

AXS: Was “I Got a Name” recorded during the same sessions as your recent album, Just Like Medicine, or was it a separate project that came later?

A.J: Later. I’d been on tour for about a month in Spain when I got the call. I was only home for three days. So I knew just who to call. I made calls from Spain and booked the session and made sure I had all the instruments and players that would be right for it. I came home for three days, and one of those days was spent recording that. Five or six times a year I play the song in my Generations of Croce show where I play it on guitar. But I switched instruments since keys are my first instrument. But it works great live on guitar, and it feels more natural on guitar. I’ve played it for a couple years like that.

AXS: It really is a timeless song. It’s got that terrific wistful quality about it. It’s still a radio favorite, and it still pops up on T.V. and in the movies today.

A.J: Yes, Logan and Django Unchained. Every once in a while we’ll get a call for it!

AXS: You also covered another of your dad’s songs, “The Name of the Game,” for the new record. Tell us about that tribute, and how it impacted the album.

A.J: The album…I was really surprised that it hung on the charts from August to December. I really didn’t expect that! Both on the sales chart and the radio chart. It ended up being in all different kinds of places. Places I wouldn’t expect. And with “The Name of the Game,” it had Vince Gill, so it was all sorts of genres! think people were just interested to hear it, and it was fun for me to be able to arrange it. It’s one of those things we could get to [Nat King Cole / Natalie Cole] “Unforgettable” in the studio, when we arranged it [laughs]! We looked at it to see how I could make it my own, but pay tribute to the original.

Visit A.J. Croce on the web for tour dates and information. His music is available on iTunes.