THE ENTERTAINER: Artist and musician Joe Crookston will perform this weekend as part of the RiverRoots Music Series. Crookston last performed in Madison during the 2015 RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival.
THE ENTERTAINER: Artist and musician Joe Crookston will perform this weekend as part of the RiverRoots Music Series. Crookston last performed in Madison during the 2015 RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival.
The RiverRoots music series continues this weekend with a storytelling songwriter learning through the lives of others.

Joe Crookston will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday at Poplar Place, 409 Poplar St.

The Ithaca, N.Y. artist describes his music as “lush sonic landscapes” seasoned with the sounds of his slide guitar, violin and looping equipment. Still, his Midwest upbringing and “working-class approach” to songwriting still affects his sometimes folk-inspired sounds.

Crookston grew up in Ohio with his songwriting mother who was rooted in the folk style.

“I was not into it,” he said. But as he moved into high school, he began to see the similarities between his mother’s music and the popular rock of the time.

“I thought, ‘wait, she’s playing the same chords Neil Young is playing.’”

Later Crookston attended Kent State University to study classical guitar before dropping out to pursue music full-time. Since then his music has inspired short independent films, educators and filled his own albums of original tunes.

In 2016, he was invited to serve as the artist in residence for the Folk Alliance International Conference. The same group named his 2008 LP “Able, Baker, Charlie & Dog” album of the year.

The past RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival performer said his music is centered on “human-grounded stories” whether they’re about farmers, runaway slaves or his grandfather building airplane runways while he was in the Navy.

In his efforts to “learn through the lives of other people” Crookston has collaborated with a World War I museum for an original song, “The Letters of Florence Hemphill,” and painting based on the experience of a Kansas nurse stationed overseas. The song “Blue Tattoo,” was inspired by Crookston’s relationship with a Holocaust survivor.

The song then served as the inspiration for a documentary on the two.

Exploring humanity through universal qualities allows his music to “stitch groups together,” he said.

While avoiding a “preachy” tone, Crookston believes his music can touch listeners from all backgrounds from conservative to liberal and still be used by history teachers or inspire other artists.

Especially in the current political climate, he said, “we don’t need more dividing.”

With time, Crookston said he’s grown more comfortable sharing his own story, though he never had an interest in being a “self-absorbed songwriter” detailing his latest heartbreak.

While the lyrics are important, Crookston said themes on connection and human experience flow into the sound of his music as well.

He wants “someone who speaks French and no English to still be moved by what they’re hearing.”

The full-time musician performs around the country with 120 shows a year and calls himself an “artist who can also be entertaining,” with humor and comedy built into his positive-natured performances.

Still, he said, he avoids upbeat triteness and retains the grit in his art.

The musician said he reinvents himself, almost to a fault, to keep himself and audiences engaged in his shows. There’s no going through the motions, he said.

“I have to be awake, alive and excited about what I’m doing.”

He knows some audiences can be a bit cynical of his irreverent positivity, but he hopes listeners who take a chance on him will find a “jolt of inspiration” after being inundated with the day-to-day.

“I want them to remember their own passion,” he said.

Tickets for the intimate concert can be purchased at the door for $15 or in advance for $12 by visiting www.riverroots.org.