Jack Grelle wrote some of his first country songs as he hitchhiked across the Midwest, meeting people from around the country with life experience far beyond his own. Nearly a decade ago, he spent time with strangers in cramped cars — sometimes for days — and gained a strong sense of compassion for a shared, but diverse, humanity.
On his album “Got Dressed Up to be Let Down,” Grelle, of St. Louis, applies that care to country music, bypassing pop-country stereotypes to call out classism, racism and misogyny. That might seem an unusual approach when considering some have identified the genre “with red states before we even knew red states existed.”
“As a political person that’s writing in a genre and in a tradition that can often be delivered to or played for a bit more of a conservative crowd at times," Grelle said, "I’ve realized that I need to incorporate some questions or some thoughts or some ideas that might kind of seep through, and might kind of be like 'oh, wow, yeah.'”
The album is an extension of 29-year-old’s personal, progressive politics — notions gleaned from time spent on the road and honed through years of songwriting. He values authenticity and honesty and defines a “good country song” by whether or not you can tell a singer’s “pouring their heart out while they’re singing.”
For Grelle, who performs Saturday at Off Broadway, that means countering the conventional perception of country as right-leaning — a notion supported by polls indicating country music listeners were more likely to support conservative policies and politicians.
“I’m really trying to write songs that I can infiltrate, maybe infiltrate is an extreme word, but that I can add in some politics or some progressive views or some humanitarian ideas into a country song that at first-listen people might won’t pick up on," Grelle said.
Songs on the album shift from subtle to direct, but never beat a listener over the head. The title track tells the story of a woman who’s stood up for a date. But instead of falling into a tradition of portraying the woman as heart-broken and the man as a charming rogue, the song offers an alternate ending: the man disappears from the story and the woman finds empowerment by ditching her infatuation altogether.
Grelle wrote the song with his partner, Julia Van Horn, who also sings with the band. She came up with the initial phrase, “Got Dressed Up to Be Let Down,” and from there the message seemed clear.
“We wanted it to be a story showing a woman being empowered as opposed to a woman being this fragile being that is often in country music or just main stream society and media,” Grelle said.
“Birthday Cards” is one of the most personal songs on the album, a tribute to his grandmother’s unfailing practice of sending birthday cards with personalized notes and sketches of her and her husband to the grandkids. It’s a casually feminist tribute to her position as a strong woman and family matriarch who influenced the lives of those around her.
Grelle road-tests many of his songs to varying results. The song “Changes Never Made” was written in support of Black Lives Matter and critiques a St. Louis County grand jury's decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. It also critiques media outlets that portrayed protesters as violent and Brown as a criminal.
On stage, Grelle has attempted to perfect his stage banter leading up to the song. He believes it’s important to establish the song’s objective, but says his preamble has earned boos — and caused people to leave shows.
"In Nashville the other week, I got the biggest middle finger of my entire life," Grelle said. "It’s crazy that by prefacing the song and saying, ‘In 2016 we shouldn’t have to say Black Lives Matter, but we do,’ and by saying that simple statement right there, offends people.” he said.
But Grelle wasn’t dissuaded and the song appears as the album’s sixth track.
Although he’s developing his craft as a songwriter, Grelle still draws on his hitchhiking days for inspiration, as he did on “On the Other Side of Denver,” which details his travels through Kansas.
Listener response to the tune only cemented Grelle’s desire to highlight human connections.
“It was the first song that I felt like some of my friends and some people I met related to," he said. "I had a couple people ask if they could cover it, and that just meant the world to me.”
For Grelle, each song is part of his quest to write real country songs, songs that capture the authentic and honest representation of a person’s life and ideals.
“I want to write songs that come back to me and are true to me and true to what I believe in without being put on a pedestal.”
If you go:
What: Jack Grelle in concert
Where: Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Ave., St. Louis
When: Saturday, Nov. 5. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show starts at 8 p.m.