Joel Crouse was onstage at Gillette Stadium in 2013 singing his debut country single “If You Want Some” while 55,000-plus Taylor Swift fans found their way to their seats. It was a home-state gig for Crouse, a native of Holland, Massachusetts, and the then-21-year-old was wrapping up his leg of opening Swift’s Red Tour. Ed Sheeran was on the run too, and the songwriters, about the same age, became friends and sounding boards for each other.
“I’d walk off, fist-bump Ed, who’s going on stage, and there’d be an SUV bringing us back to the hotel. It’s everything I would have ever wanted,” the 28-year-old Crouse tells Rolling Stone.
Except it wasn’t. While certain elements of fame were superficially rewarding to Crouse, he knew he wasn’t living up to his potential. He had an album of country songs in the can, awaiting release by the now-defunct Show Dog-Universal label, but when he heard what Sheeran was writing, it left Crouse feeling less than.
“Ed was playing me his Multiply [X] record on that tour, and I was like, ‘This is so fucking cool.’ I remember playing him songs off my country album and I felt so insecure. ‘Cause I wasn’t proud of it,” he says of 2014’s Even the River Runs, released a full year after his high-profile Swift tour. “I finished it when I was 18 and I had already outgrown that music, so I’m playing him music that was completely dated to me.”
One night while watching Sheeran onstage, Crouse had a revelation.
“I felt like, ‘Why am I not happy? Why am I feeling like shit?’ I’m 21 and on the biggest tour of 2013, and literally my dreams are coming true, but things just aren’t sitting right. Watching Ed was one of the first moments where I thought, ‘I’m young enough to go back and start doing pop and rock.'”
Crouse was already used to hearing that his brand of music wasn’t country enough. “I remember promoting ‘If You Want Some’ and people were like, ‘He’s too pop. He’s from Massachusetts, not from the South,” he says. “And how much shit I got for wearing a beanie was unreal. Zac Brown can pull it off, ’cause he’s from Georgia, but you take a Boston kid wearing a beanie? No way.”
“Joel sees the world in such a Joel kind of way and I love that,” says Darius Rucker, a friend and collaborator. “He has a sense of melody like no one I have been around. I think that comes from the way that his voice is so unique, so original. He’s had to come up with things that were different because he sounded different.”
Earlier this month, seven years after his musical epiphany, Crouse finally released music that celebrates his idiosyncrasies, the EP Wasteland. A collection of seven expertly crafted pop songs, it is the sound of a man who has earned his voice.
Listening to it back-to-back with Even the River Runs is a night-and-day experience. Most noticeably, the incongruous-for-a-New-Englander twang Crouse adopted for country music is gone. The bright optimism inherent in country-radio songs is also missing, replaced by a more realistic worldview, one that’s been shaped by bad luck, bad decisions, and the realization that life can be a long series of pitfalls.
“I’ve had a lot of trust situations where I probably trusted the wrong people, but this one really fucked with me.”
Crouse, who was raised in a strict household as the son of a pastor, learned this firsthand. Over a four-year stretch, he survived a serious car accident; weathered tabloid scrutiny for his relationship with the actress and singer Lucy Hale; went to rehab for a pill addiction; and watched his business manager be sentenced to six years in prison for fraud. In the aftermath, Crouse lost his apartment, car, and health insurance. He says he turned to “food stamps,” applying for SNAP benefits, to help purchase groceries.
“I’ve had a lot of trust situations where I probably trusted the wrong people, but this one really fucked with me. This is the dude that pays your rent, your insurance, everything,” he says. “I was coming out of the Taylor tour with weird credit card debts. I had four bank accounts; I had access to one. I was such a young kid. I regret not paying attention.”
His financial problems happened not long after Crouse’s visit to rehab in 2015. For an admitted “sheltered kid,” being exposed to the temptations of the road was a shock to the system: He developed a dependency on sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. “I couldn’t sleep without them, I couldn’t function,” he says. “It was a battle, so I went to get my shit right, take a few months off and figure out where I’m headed.”
Yet even after Crouse chucked the pills and began to dig out of debt, he found himself questioning his career path. “I remember looking up at God and the universe and going, ‘I don’t have to do this,'” he says.
Then he got an email from his old friend Sheeran.
Both were tasked with writing songs for Hootie and the Blowfish’s comeback album, Imperfect Circle. Crouse tentatively suggested to his now superstar friend that they write one together. “We had been friends six years and never worked together before, but you don’t want to step on people’s toes,” Crouse says. Sheeran was onboard and said they’d get together when he was in Nashville. “I remember getting his email while I was praying to figure out what I was going to do, and it was…whoa.”
The original plan was to write with Rucker, but storms prohibited the Hootie singer from traveling from South Carolina. Sheeran suggested they use the time to write a song for Crouse and the soul-searching “On My Way” was born. A gentle acoustic ballad about being present for a friend in need, it became a message of reassurance to someone contemplating suicide. “You don’t have to hurt yourself/I’m on my way,” Crouse sings.
“It’s not strictly about suicide, but that’s what we had in mind. People hitting low points and letting those thoughts get the best of them,” says Crouse, a staunch proponent of mental health and therapy. “People get this weird perception that musicians, actors, athletes…they all have it together and life is perfect. But one thing everyone shares in common is we all get down.”
Crouse premiered a video for “On My Way” on Thursday that features everyday folks sharing notes of support for loved ones. Rucker and Sheeran make cameos, as does Crouse’s ex Hale (the pair maintain a friendship).
But Wasteland isn’t a self-help manual, and some of his best moments are when Crouse recalls his dark days. The swooning title track, framed by Crouse’s time in L.A., finds him ruminating on the hazards of the music industry. “Interstellar” is about a toxic relationship from which he cannot break free. And “Hum” — with its funky groove and, yes, hum — is about taking mushrooms and hooking up with a girl on the living room floor when he was 19. “It felt like this jungle of love and you can just see colors and all this shit going on.”
It’s “Survivin’,” though, one of the earliest written songs on Wasteland, that condenses all that Crouse has been through. It’s his fall from the cushy heights of the Taylor Swift tour to the depths of nearly losing his livelihood. He sings about “spending way too much money, impressing people we hate.”
“I was living off of $40 a week in my bank account but somehow keeping up the appearance that there’s nothing wrong,” he says of that time. “Because no one wants to hear about that shit when it’s happening. They want to hear about it in the past.”
It’s all in the rearview now. The song is titled “Survivin'” for a reason.