As Joel Cross walks into East Side bar in Denton, one bar patron announces, “Joel Cross, ladies and gentleman.” A few others around him erupt in applause. Cross grins and visits with them. This is old hat for the local guitarist, a well-known figure in the city's music and bar scene. But it's a little different today. Cross has gone viral.
The reason was a video of Cross, recorded without his knowledge, of him playing a jazzy cover of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." Cross had performed the song while playing for several hours last Saturday at the Dallas Arboretum, and one onlooker, Travis Porter, uploaded the song to YouTube.
“I didn’t think anything of it and then I woke up the next morning to a message from my buddy saying, ‘Hey, man, you’re Internet famous. You’re all over the Web today,’” Cross says. “I looked at it and it was the Huffington Post saying that video had over 100,000 views and I was like, ‘What the heck?’”
Cross, who is from Cleburne, has been playing music since he was 12 years old, getting his start in gospel music. He then went on to study at the University of Houston and UNT before teaching guitar for a few years. After realizing teaching guitar wasn't something he wanted to do for the rest of his life, he began performing full time.
Here and there, people would randomly ask him to cover a Swift song. “People just love Taylor Swift and it just kept coming up and I was like, ‘This would be really funny if I actually did it,’ and I did,” he says. From there, Cross says he listened to the song while driving to a gig and figured out how to make it his own. “I sat down with the guitar and was just playing the chords until I found a groove I liked and then I just sang through the song and it just slowly developed."
Today the video has more than 650,000 views on YouTube. Cross lists off some nice things he has read about the video, but says he tries not to read them all. “To be honest, I’m trying not to read all the comments. I don’t need to hear that," he says. (Wise man.)
Cross remains philosophical about his newfound fame. “I like what I do regardless of when I was getting national attention or very little attention to begin with and it really doesn’t make any difference," he insists. He's long since been able to make a living from playing music full time.
"The reason I play music is because I love it and it makes me happy," Cross continues. "I’m happy people are into it. In whatever way I was introduced into the world — as the big black guy who plays Taylor Swift. But it’s more important to me, not what they think, but that I think well of myself and I remember why I play.”
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As Cross sits in the bar booth and drinks his beer, he is relaxed and cool, occasionally throwing around the words "good vibes." He is thankful to Porter for uploading the video, adding that Porter deserves any money that comes along with uploading a video to YouTube. However, he is still blown away by the media storm happening around him — it's just him answering all the emails and phone calls. He sits and thinks about the past few days and everything that has happened. He nonchalantly mentions that America's Got Talent asked him to audition, a prospect he seems lukewarm on despite acknowledging the exposure it could earn him.
But it's when he's talking about his own music that he lights up. He just released an EP to iTunes, featuring five original songs. “One of my favorite parts of music is creating your own," he says. The EP includes a lot of acoustic soul "sad, love songs," and those are what he's playing at shows now.
Whatever comes from his viral success, Cross wants to make sure his love for music is apparent.
"I just hope that people feel the same love for music that I have anytime they get to experience my music in one way, shape, or form. It's something that's magical to me," he says. "It's spiritual, it's holy, it's a gift, what music can do for the soul. I know what it does for me and I hope it does some amazing things for anybody who ever gets a chance to listen to it."