After he released his album Got Dressed Up to Be Let Down, the local singer-songwriter Jack Grelle spent plenty of time on the road performing his mix of rock, folk and honky-tonk music. Much of that time in the van took him and his band across the United States, but in the past few years he's traveled to Europe on three separate occasions.
Sometimes he'd perform solo sets or serve as a warm-up act for Pokey LaFarge's thousand-seat theater shows; sometimes he'd tour alongside a Spanish krautrock/psych band; and sometimes he'd perform his music with a hodge-podge backing band that traipsed with him around Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
Grelle is a musician who borrows liberally from a few American traditions, from strident political folk ballads to tear-stained country ballads, and the European crowds would respond in various ways to his performances.
"It's an interesting thing, because it's a mix, of who comes out and who is into it, country to country," Grelle says of his overseas gigs. "For lack of a better term there's almost a fetishization of country music and Americana over there, and people that are super into the retro look — I've played at places where they have a cowboy theme night when I play.
"Then there are wonderful shows where it's a complete mix of ages and what people generally listen to," he continues. "It's been really interesting and wonderful to have those opportunities." Grelle will continue to pursue those opportunities for cross-cultural pollination this spring when he returns to the continent, this time with the support of multi-instrumentalist Sam Golden. On this trip, he'll have a new batch of songs to play from his forthcoming LP If Not Forever, for which he'll have a local release show on March 20 at Off Broadway.
But before he put the finishing touches on that album, Grelle took another international trip — one that, by design, had nothing to do with music. He enrolled in a language program in the Mexican state of Chiapas. While there, he led the life of a backpacker with ascetic living conditions and a rigorous program of study.
"I've been studying Spanish a lot over the past few years, mainly due to my time in Spain where I got to tour with some buddies in a band called Sufre," Grelle says. "After that tour I thought, 'I need to really get back to the grammar if I'm going to improve my language skills.'
"It was maybe the best trip I've ever had," he continues. "It was really cool to have an international trip that wasn't musical but was educational and cultural, and it was very humbling." And after years of gigging, he felt liberated from the grind of touring. "It was really, really nice to just have a backpack and not have to worry about gear or a van or wrangling the band or anything like that," Grelle says.
The trip to Mexico was a reprieve before the official launch of If Not Forever, an album whose songs show Grelle at a time of maturity and transition; in place of raucous honky-tonk sit slower, gentler songs accented with horn charts or suffused with a string quartet. Though Grelle tracked a few elements of the album at two Cherokee Street studios — Native Sound and Yellow Hat — the bulk of the tracking was done at Chicago's Jamdek Recording Studio, primarily to work with producer Cooper Crain.
"He's in the band Cave and Bitchin' Bajas — he's originally from Columbia, Missouri, and I know him from there,'" Grelle says of Crain. "He's always been the vibe-guy guru around town and I've always wanted to work with him."
Crain's bands tend toward the experimental side of things, which made him an atypical producer for an act like Grelle. "This record isn't a classic honky-tonk record by any means, and I thought it would be fun to work with someone who's definitely not from that world, to try to get it more evolved in the sound," says Grelle.
That evolution will be on display at the March 20 album release show, where in addition to Grelle's usual backing band he'll be joined by a string quartet, a few of the players from the album's Chicago sessions and a few local friends.
But no matter the setting, Grelle's songwriting remains at the center of his work. His songs tend to ask questions about social classes and aim for a kind of universal solidarity. The loping "Out Where the Buses Don't Run" tells of an encounter with an eccentric and generous homeless man, and elsewhere on the album he tackles big issues with a tight focus.
He describes "It Ain't Working" as a "generational song," outlining the story of a whole working-class family. "Mom's working nights, dad's a union man," Grelle says. "Kids are crammed sharing a bed. It's kind of a short story of class stratification." In the song, Grelle keeps the specifics of the story a bit vague, but in conversation he says that he had the communities of north county and north city in mind — neighborhoods that were formerly populated by lower- and middle-class white families but are now communities of color.
"The idea is about working-class solidarity across racial lines; the whole concept in general is a critique on capitalism," Grelle says. "Is it working for everybody? I wanted to have a simple song, but I've also learned that pointing fingers doesn't work. If we want to have a conversation we can't be doing that."