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A.J. Croce’s ambitious new album is a cross-country tour de force. We listen in.

Croce’s Hots: The Balboa Park carousel, the Tijuana art scene, Caesar salads at Caesar’s in Tijuana, Record City and Cow Records, Lou Curtiss’ Jazz Roots show on Jazz 88.3, shrimp tacos at El Zarape, University Heights, Gilbert Castellanos, San Diego
Pride Festival

Croce’s Nots: S.D. public transportation, wannabe Rastafarians (“You are not from Jamaica!! You’re from Leucadia!”), bros, Oakleys, hating L.A., Sea World, East and North County rednecks

Yes, he’s the son and heir of music legends (folk singers Jim and Ingrid Croce). And sure, he’s written songs with people like Ben Harper and Arlo Guthrie. Oh, and of course he’s played gigs on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America. But what does A.J. Croce call his most inspiring musical moment?

“I knew I wanted to be a musician when I played a bar mitzvah when I was 12 years old. I played a lot of Memphis Slim and Ray Charles and got paid $20.”

How’s that for humbleness?

From playing Charles’ songs at a bar mitzvah to opening for Brother Ray himself on one of his last tours to collaborating with famous piano man Leon Russell, Croce has friends in high places (Willie Nelson described him as having “wisdom beyond his years”). Croce’s big breakout moment could be coming with Twelve Tales, his just-released album, for which he recorded 12 songs with six legendary producers in their home cities. Originally distributed as monthly singles, the songs had Croce working with the likes of Allen Toussaint in New Orleans (Dr. John, Paul McCartney) and Cowboy Jack Clement (Elvis and Johnny Cash at Sun Records) in Nashville, among others.

Now back at his University Heights home, where his studio is perched over a canyon, the dapper Croce is surrounded by his family’s musical legacy: pictures, memorabilia and dozens of instruments he’s now capable of playing. He could have packed up and moved to Nashville or New York, as so many music execs advised him to do over the years, but he says the San Diego scene has always been one of his biggest inspirations.

“When I was growing up here, if you played music, you were tight with everyone else who did, no matter what kind of music you played. It was us against them. San Diego has a very tight scene of kooks. It was like that when I was coming up and it’s still like that.”