During a nearly 40-year career, Marshall Crenshaw has released 10 impeccably crafted albums and almost as many EPs that have seamlessly melded the catchiest — and many would argue, the smartest — elements of pop, rockabilly, British Invasion, folk, country and western, and rhythm and blues into a singular style that miraculously avoided all traces of pastiche. Starting with Robert Gordon, who scored a hit with one of Crenshaw’s early songs, “Someday, Someway,” artists who have covered his compositions include Bette Midler, Gin Blossoms, Marti Jones, Lou Ann Barton, Don Dixon, Was (Not Was), Ronnie Spector, Rosie Flores, Kelly Willis, and New Grass Revival, among others.
Yet, in spite of his well-regarded reputation with contemporaries and music critics — and even despite Golden Globe and Grammy nominations for penning the title track to the 2007 biopic parody Walk Hard — Crenshaw hasn’t managed to shake the “cult hero” status given to him by industry insiders. A cursory Google search of articles about the singersongwriter and guitarist invariably turns up such terms as underappreciated and underrated, words Crenshaw has seen and heard for years. But he takes an ambivalent view on his standing in the business.
“When you first read that stuff, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. Underrated and underappreciated by whom?’” he asks. “It’s kind of a curve ball, like, how do I even respond to that? I’ve had success. Maybe it’s not as big as what other people have done, but I know that there’s people who really love my stuff, and they’ve loved it all of their lives. And then there’s people who hate what I do, or maybe they don’t have awareness of it. But I have no control over any of that. I’m just doing the best I can. It’s all I’ve ever done.”
As a guitarist, the Detroit native has traditionally peppered his tracks with smooth, elegant lead runs so hooky and melodic that one could easily sing along with them. In fact, on one of his chart hits, 1983’s “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” Crenshaw croons in unison with his swooning, sensual lead work. But he can get wild and woolly, too. Check out the snaggle-toothed noir-rock instrumental “Despite the Sun,” from 2003’s What’s in the Bag?, on which he uncorks a gritty, whacked-out Hendrix-like solo that lays to waste any notions that he’s a mere pop practitioner.
Back in 2004, Crenshaw got a chance to crank his amp to 11 when he joined then-surviving members of the proto-punk band MC5 — bassist Mike Davis, guitarist Wayne Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson — for what was billed as the DKT/MC5 tour. Of playing with his fellow Detroit rockers and teenage heroes, Crenshaw says, “That was a blast. Not only for the fact that I’m an MC5 fan, but it also allowed me to step outside myself. When I’m doing my own stuff, I really sweat over every note, so it’s very freeing to get out of that space where your own ego is on the line. Playing with the MC5 guys was a total joy for me.”
Over the past year, he’s stepped into another guest role, joining the surviving members of the Smithereens — guitarist Jim Babjak, bassist Mike Mesaros and drummer Dennis Diken — as the guitarist and frontman of the band once led by Pat DiNizio, who passed away in December 2017. “Pat’s passing was a real bombshell and a heartbreaker, although I wasn’t exactly surprised,” Crenshaw says. “He had been sick for a while, and I could see the direction everything was headed. Still, it’s always terrible when you get the news you’ve been anticipating.”
At first, Crenshaw’s involvement with the Smithereens was supposed to be a one-off for a Pat DiNizio tribute show. “I got up and played three songs with them, and it just really rocked,” he notes. “I think we noticed, ‘Hey, this sounds pretty good.’” So he wasn’t entirely surprised when Diken called him to play more shows. “How could I say no?” he asks rhetorically. “Performing with them is really exciting. I just clear my head and play their music. It’s kind of turned into a thing. I can’t say what the future will hold, whether we’ll do new stuff or whatever. My own mission is to help those guys honor their legacy, and Pat’s. They get so much joy from playing together, and I’m happy to help make that happen. We’ll see if anything else develops.”
Which is pretty much how Crenshaw has navigated his own career. He even has what he calls a “cute answer” for how he assesses his standing in the industry. “I just tell people, ‘I serve the music and the muse,’” he quips. “Beyond my own music, I’ve made the most of the opportunities that came my way. I did my stint in movies like La Bamba [as Buddy Holly] and Peggy Sue Got Married [as a member of the reunion band]. I’ve hosted a radio show. I was the mastermind of a book on rock and roll movies [Hollywood Rock]. I play with different bands when asked.” He pauses. “And I still really like playing the guitar. After all of these years, it’s still my favorite thing.”
Let’s talk about your first guitars. You started on a cheap acoustic, but then you moved to a Gretsch Corvette electric.
That’s right. My first guitar was one I got when my dad took me to Sears. He bought me a parlor-sized Stella for 17 bucks. I tried to learn how to play on that guitar. My cousin Chuck was sort of an older brother to me. We both tried to learn how to play at the same time. We’d sit on the front porch, and one of us would play rhythm while the other tried to play melodies. We did that for a whole summer.
After a while, my dad got me this pickup that you clipped onto the side of the guitar, and I put that on the Stella. I had this little amp and could make some noise out of it. At some point, he bought me the Gretsch Corvette. I wish I still had that guitar. It was pretty cool.
After the Gretsch, you got your first Strat. Did that feel like the most natural thing in your hands?
Actually, before the Strat, I had a Gibson Les Paul. It was stolen at this drunken party I played at. I turned my back for half a minute with the car unlocked, and somebody snatched it. That was a drag.
That’s where the Strat came in. A cousin of mine had come back from Vietnam, and he had this Stratocaster. He needed some cash, and I needed a new guitar, so my dad loaned me the money. He figured if he was going to lend me money for a new guitar, it had to be my cousin’s guitar. I was okay with that because I kind of wanted a Stratocaster anyway. I loved Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix — they were the two guys who put the Strat on the map — but it didn’t feel natural at first. It took me a year or so to get used to the feel of it and how it sounded.
Did you have a set practice routine at this point, or were you more about playing along to records?
I did both. Some of the time I did scales. Every now and then, I would go through this binge where I would get books and try to learn whatever I could. I got the Mickey Baker books, and I got halfway through the first one. I never got to the second one, but I do remember practicing to that first book. I really wanted to get good. I probably could have gotten more serious about learning how to read, but I sort of figured out most of what I needed to know.
How did you conduct your guitar and gear research? Back in the day, it wasn’t as easy as it is now.
No, it’s much easier now. You’ve got everything online, and there’s videos and all this information. When I was coming up, it was mostly watching what people were doing. I saw what the garage bands or the groups at school were playing. And I’d go to music stores. After church, we’d walk across the street and look at the guitars in the window of this music store. I remember they had a Fender Precision Bass in the window, and my dad couldn’t figure out what this thing with four fat strings was.
I was really into Fenders. I’d watch The Lawrence Welk Show on TV, and I’d see Buddy Merrill on guitar. He was really great. He played this cool western-swing style, and he was a Fender player. Whenever I’d see anybody on TV with a Fender guitar, I was riveted.
Were there periods in your teenage years when you were more into British rock than anything else, or were you more focused on the music coming out of Detroit?
Well, I loved the local stuff, for sure, but I was right onboard with the British Invasion when it came along. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and they were just so exciting, as you can imagine. On the other hand, I had been playing guitar before that ever happened. So while the British thing undoubtedly spurred millions of kids to play guitar, I was way into it before the Beatles. There was a lot of great music going on before 1964! Although, of course, I loved the Beatles and the whole British thing. It was a big influence.
What about some of the bands that came out of the Midwest in the late ’60s and early ’70s, such as the James Gang and Grand Funk Railroad? Did any of those bands make an impression on you?
Oh, yeah. It’s funny you mention them because I saw both bands on the same day. It was at the State Fair in 1969. They called it the Rock ’n’ Roll Revival. That was an amazing show — the MC5, the Stooges, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and, amazingly enough, Dr. John. The James Gang played in the middle of the afternoon. I had never heard of them, but I thought they were great. Joe Walsh made a real impression on me that day. Grand Funk Railroad played their very first gig that day, but they kind of got laughed off the stage after the P.A. blew up during their set. It was a real scene that day.
A lot of lead singers don’t play lead guitar, and vice versa. Did doing both come naturally to you, or did you have to work at putting both skills together?
From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to be a guitar player. So the guitar came first, but I always liked to sing, too. Sometimes I listen to recordings of me singing when I was a kid, and I kind of go, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have.” [laughs] I just liked to do it. It was a natural thing, though, singing and playing. I didn’t have to think about it. I think if you start out young, it just comes to you.
Before you got your record deal, you played John Lennon in the musical Beatlemania. Did you learn anything about the Beatles’ music that you hadn’t absorbed previously?
Honestly, I didn’t learn anything about the Beatles’ music when I was in Beatlemania that I didn’t know already. Well, let me correct that: I did learn some cool stuff from talking to the other guys who were in the show. There were some really talented guys, good musical thinkers. [Former Styx member] Glen Burtnik was in the show, and I connected with him. He had really wide musical tastes. And then there was a guy named Bob Miller. He was a drummer, but he learned the guitar to get in the show. I found that the guys I connected with had more of a scope than just the Beatles. I always found it boring to be into just one thing.
Let’s talk about your debut album. What was your guitar-and-amp setup on that one?
When I went to do that album, I had a Marshall 2x12 combo amp with six knobs on it. I don’t remember the model name, but it had a simple control layout like the old Fender Bassmans. I put Altec speakers in it because I developed a liking for them. I used that amp a lot, but I also used this amp at the Record Plant [where the album was recorded] — a Fender Pro with a 15-inch speaker. I really like 15-inch speakers because Buddy Holly used them. I also used a lot of Vox AC30s on the record, but they kept catching fire.
My guitar was mostly my red Stratocaster, but my producer, Richard Gottehrer, made me rent some guitars from this hack that he was managing. He was like, “You can’t just use the same guitar over and over again.” So I had the Stratocaster, an Epiphone Coronet and a Vox 12-string. I think that was it.
That album’s production was relatively simple. All of that changed on Field Day. Producer Steve Lillywhite really opened up your sound, but some people were taken aback by it.
A lot of people were taken aback, and I could never understand any of that. I think I made a more singular statement on Field Day than on my first album. On my first record, I hear guitars, but I don’t really hear my guitar. It’s like this wall of guitars, but is it distinctive? Richard Gottehrer would always say, “We need some thickening, so why don’t you go out and put down six acoustic guitars, give us sort of a bed to build up from?” So there’s lots of layering. On Field Day, it’s just one guitar mostly. You hear me trying to sound like the guitar player of the music. I would definitely choose that one in terms of my guitar sound.
Around this time, music critics started calling you power pop, a term you chafed at quite a bit.
Oh, I chafed. I chafed a lot, but I’m done chafing now. I literally don’t care anymore. I don’t care what people call my stuff. I’m just glad when somebody likes it. I used to get mad about being put into this little subcategory, but I’m just past the point of making a stink about it.
Your next release, Downtown, feels like a transitional album. It feels more “adult,” as if you were tired of trying to write for the MTV audience.
It wasn’t premeditated in any way. Every time I went in to make a new album, I wasn’t thinking, Okay, how can I make this stuff fit into people’s parameters? How can I make this meet other people’s expectations? I never did that. I just was like, What do I want to do? I’d just kind of start from scratch and try to do something interesting each time.
Guitar-wise and production-wise, there’s differences between those first three albums. On Downtown, I was trying to draw from whatever I was interested in at that moment. I was buying a lot of guitars all the time, and I wanted to use them. Richard Gottehrer kind of put that into my head, that it was good to have different instruments and textures. On Field Day, it was 80 percent Stratocaster and Vox AC30, and on Downtown there’s some Mosrites and Gretsches. There’s still the Fender but a bit more of the other guitars.
There is more of a country vibe on several of the songs on Downtown. Was [producer] T Bone Burnett pushing you to explore that side of yourself?
I don’t know if it was him. I think it was more kind of self-directed. As I mentioned, I really loved Buddy Merrill and that western-swing style that he had. I was always aware of country music, and I think I was listening to a lot of it going into Downtown. It just kind of crept in.
I really struggled to get my shit together on that record. The fallout from Field Day threw me a curve. I did a track with Mitch Easter, and I did a track or two with Don Was that didn’t make the album. I had the same problem with Don and Warner Brothers that I had with Steve Lillywhite. Don wasn’t well known at that point, and it was the same thing with Steve. Warners couldn’t understand what I was doing or who these producers were. My A&R person, Karen Berg, was great, but there was such a battle between the West Coast and East Coast of Warners. I was caught in this culture clash. It was really making me hate show business.
Was it a little bittersweet to have co-written “Til I Hear It From You,” which became a big hit for Gin Blossoms? Did you ever think to record it yourself?
I never thought to record it. That whole thing was an absolute blast, and I never had any negative feelings about it. One of the guys in the band, Jesse Valenzuela, called and asked me to help him write a song for a movie soundtrack [Empire Records]. He said the band were big fans of mine. We were both at South by Southwest, so we got together and wrote the song, and it just blew up from there. That was definitely a great phone call to get.
After 1999’s #447, your album output slowed down. You’ve released only two more full-lengths since then: What’s in the Bag? and Jaggedland. Were you getting a little disillusioned with the record-making process during that period?
I don’t know if I’d put it that way. I still loved making records, but after #447 my kids were born. That really shifted my life in the best way. It redefined my life. Suddenly, I wasn’t in my own head all the time.
I could rephrase that: Were you becoming disillusioned with the record business at all?
Oh, well, that’s different. I never really liked the business. Well, I sort of did in the beginning — I thought it was exciting. And then I grew to hate it really fast. It’s a common story. I’ve had it better than some people, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
In 2012, you started self-releasing EPs with great frequency. Did that process feel better than dealing with record companies?
It did. It made me think that maybe I should have done that right from the beginning. Instead of making albums, I’d just put out singles. I think that could have suited me better — put out a single every month, you know? What I loved about the series of EPs was that there was always something new at that moment. It kept me motivated. I’m currently looking into making more records, but I think it could be singles.
Besides Strats, what are your go-to guitars these days?
With the Smithereens, I use this Mosrite 12-string guitar. It works really nice with the band. I have always loved Mosrites. For my money, they are hands down the best guitars for rockabilly, and they are just really cool, period. So I play that one.
Earl Slick and I were talking one time, and we discussed why Fenders sound different from every other guitar. It’s the bolt-on neck. Because of that separation between the neck and the body, they’re their own thing. That said, I’ve been playing a lot of set-neck guitars recently. They respond differently than Fenders. So I have a Guild CE-100D. It’s a hollowbody, and it gets a nice deep sound. And then I have a Gretsch Sparkle Jet from the mid ’60s. It’s got the Filter’Tron pickups, and it sounds really cool. My favorite guitar that I picked up recently is one called a Galanti Grand Prix. It’s such a cool and weird guitar.
It’s Fender-y, but it has these mini humbuckers in it. It’s just so unique and beautiful. I love it.
How about acoustics? What are you currently playing?
I have a couple of Bourgeois acoustics that I play, but neither one of them has pickups, so I just play them at home or in the studio. I have a 12-string Maton, and that’s a really nice one.
You’re known for playing beautifully constructed, melodic solos. But tell me, is there anything about your playing you’d like to improve?
I guess I’d just like to be able to understand more and hear better. One thing that frustrates me is that I never really learned to read music. I got this book about Billy Strayhorn, and it has these little pieces of notation for some of his pieces. I had no clue how to read it, and I thought, Well, this stinks. But I just found out that senior citizens — and I am one now — can go to college for free in New York state. Maybe if I get a year off I can have somebody teach me how to understand Billy Strayhorn’s music. That would be pretty cool.
Do you sit and practice still, kind of like you did when you started?
I do. In fact, I practice more than I play now. Every day I try to sit down and do exercises on the guitar, just so my muscles will stay in shape. There’s nothing worse than not playing for a few days, and then you’re in a music store and you’re fumbling to play with all of these people looking at you.
At my age, I really have to make sure that I keep my muscles in shape on the guitar. I do this thing where I just play chromatic scales up and down the neck, up to the 12th fret and back. And then I have this exercise called “the rack.” Classical players use it: You stretch the fingers on your left hand, and then you use all the fingers on your right hand. I do those two exercises, and they keep me in pretty good playing shape. I just respect the craft of guitar playing, you know? Even after all these years, I do the best I can to be a good musician.