Idaho is the sort of state that, if you didn't come from there, it's kind of hard to figure out. Oh, "potato country" has its stereotypes (see the B-52's "Private Idaho") but the jokes don't reveal much truth—Idaho is a kind of private place, in a way. Idaho-born musician Jeff Crosby has found a way to expand his musical horizons beyond the borders of the Gem State, while keeping his home, its people and things that have been formative, in the music.
Growing up in Donnelly, Idaho—a town of under 200 people about 94 miles north of Boise—sparked the 28-year-old singer/guitarist's love of folk music. "I grew up with a lot of older guys that'd get together on Sundays and play," he recalls. "It was storytelling music, old traditional folk songs. I looked up to those guys." By his late teens, he was playing the coffee houses of Boise, and any bars he could sneak into in the region, all the way over to Portland.
In 2006, his love of guitar-rock led him to start the band Equaleyes, a blend of psychedelic rock, funk, bluegrass and jam band a la Phish. They released three albums, but by 2010, he departed to Los Angeles in search of a solo career. "I had this goal to be the greatest guitar player in the world, but when I got to LA, I found that I wasn't gonna be able to stand out as a guitarist, [but] my voice and songwriting separated me."
He also found a vehicle in surfing, which took him to Sojourns in Central and South America. "I just always loved traveling. That's a pretty common thing for anyone growing up in a small town, to have that desire to go out and experience the world, see what the hell is going on out there, you know?"
But wherever he roams, he keeps returning to Idaho. "There's a certain kind of person who lives out here. When you decide to live in a place that's not a 'destination,' you get to create your own world. There's a lot of beautiful country, a lot of peace and quiet, beautiful landscape, a lot of fresh rivers and lakes. It's one of the most peaceful places, and I still get to go there. I love that I still get to come back here and write music, and get grounded, you know?"
Shifting gears again, in 2012 he started his solo project, Jeff Crosby and the Refugees, including his brother Andy on bass. The songs "Oh Love, Oh Lord" and "This Old Town" from the band's first release, Silent Conversations (Cosmo Sex School records, 2013) were featured on the TV show Sons of Anarchy. Their first full-length, All Nighter, was released July 4, and the follow-up, Waking Days, just came out Nov. 6. The music is gritty as much as it is dreamy, and that's the charm. (He's also been playing guitar with Jerry Joseph & the Jackmormons, who visited The State Room last month.)
He says the album is marked by transitions and changes he's been going through. The song "Homeless and the Dreamers" is partly about the way seeing homeless people for the first time, when he first moved to LA, affected him. "City Girls" was inspired by a conversation he had with a girl in a bar: "She says you country boys must be so leathered by your instincts/ I say you city girls must be so leathered by your dreamin'." Dreams and disillusionment go hand-in-hand in these songs, but the dream persists.
With his long hair, and the band's classic rock-influenced sound, Crosby could easily have fit in with the music of the Laurel Canyon scene of the early 1970s, which he grew up listening to. But Idaho still figures in these songs: "Canyons" was inspired by the owner of a pizza place in McCall, Idaho, who gave him one of his first paying gigs, and recently passed away. The lyric "Coming through in a memory/ your words they echo down like rain/ that becomes the water that shapes the canyon," shows how indelible the place is for him.
He hopes to record his next album in the cabin in which he was raised in Donnelly. He also recently cut a few tracks in Muscle Shoals. "If I have any extra money, I try to pop into a studio in whatever city I'm in. It always influences the song; there are so many aspects of each city that rub off on whatever I'm writing."
He's already talking about moving to Nashville, because, after five years in LA, he's "looking for a different scene." With the country infusion in his recent work, he notes, "I feel like in this line of work, I should probably live in Nashville for at least a year."