Joe Flood literally wears his influences on the sleeve of his Diesel Only debut, Cripplin’ Crutch. Strumming an acoustic guitar at an old upright piano, he’s framed by a trio of album covers. Lead Belly is flanked by Johnny Cash, as if to underscore a New York Times pronouncement that Flood’s musky baritone “perfectly straddles the fence between country and blues.” Less predictable is the man who tops the trinity: Hoagy Carmichael.
“When I was playing a lot of swing jazz, I really got into the whole Tin Pan Alley songwriter thing,” Flood explains. “And Hoagy Carmichael is unique. So many of his songs were nostalgic about a rural America that was already gone when he was writing about it — ‘Georgia On My Mind’, ‘Up The Lazy River’. At the same time, he was one of the only major American pop songwriters who maintained a connection with the early jazz, which was urban and uptown.”
Flood himself is a countrypolitan whose songs have been covered by everyone from The Band and the Bottle Rockets to retro-swingers the Flying Neutrinos. Laura Cantrell snapped up the new album’s “All The Same To Me”, with its typically witty wordplay: “I’d like to buy the world an aspirin/And slip it in their Coke.”
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Cripplin’ Crutch is Flood’s second full-length CD (Hotel Albert was self-released in 1997). But the 40-year-old troubadour makes up for lost time with a fistful of Flood classics, ranging from roadhouse rockers to the elegiac “Shades of Gray”.
“I had the benefit of growing up with my older brothers and sisters’ record collections,” says Flood, the youngest of 11 kids who all “liked to play music for fun.” While his ’70s peers in suburban Connecticut spun disco, Flood soaked up Sun singles and followed Woody Guthrie’s lead to the open road. After busking around the States with his guitar, mandolin and fiddle, he hit the streets of Paris, then looped back to Woodstock, New York, in the mid-1980s. There he crossed paths with Richard Manuel, who recruited Flood to co-write material for his first post-Band solo project.
“Then Richard killed himself, and that put an end to that,” says Flood, who fled back to Europe to recover from the shock. But his connection with The Band, who eventually recorded his song “Move To Japan”, continues to this day. “Niagara”, with its catchy “water town border town” chorus, was co-written with present-day Band guitarist Jimmy Wieder. And “Automatic Monkey”, his pitch-perfect portrait of a working-class stiff who’s “got a chain hooked to his wallet that rattles when he walks,” was inspired by Levon Helm.
On “Big Daddy Blues”, penned with longtime collaborator Jono Manson, Flood invokes his New York bar-band days. At the turn of the ’90s, upstarts such as Blues Traveler were following a trail blazed by the Worms, the Surreal McCoys, and Flood’s own Mumbo Gumbo, who ruled Sunday nights at the Rodeo Bar. On any given night, anyone from Pinetop Perkins to Joe Ely might sit in, and every chick on the scene was convinced she embodied Flood’s fabled “Miss Fabulous”. Miss Fab hit the big screen in the 1996 comedy Kingpin, and other Flood songs have since been tapped by Hollywood.
“If I could stay at home and write for other people, I’d be really happy,” says Flood, who retired from active performing when he resettled in Connecticut to raise a family. After two decades of hustling hand-to-mouth gigs, he now has his first-ever full-time position: he’s a job coach for people with disabilities.
As for his musical career, Flood follows his own advice: “If you want to get covers, you have to make a record. And if it’s a good record, people are going to listen to it, and they’ll find the song they like.”