Figuring out Marshall Crenshaw isn't exactly brain surgery. If you listen closely to his recorded catalog — from a definitive eponymous debut in 1982, through the atmospheric Steve Lillywhite-produced 1983 followup Field Day, all the way to his most recent Jaggedland — you can hear exactly how much the composer respects, even obsesses over, classic pop, rock, folk and country genres. So much so that in 1989 he dug through Capitol Records' vaults and emerged with an album's worth of dusty '50s/'60s relics, released as Hillbilly Music ... Thank God, Vol. 1.
Crenshaw has also taken those obsessions beyond the music world. The Grammy-nominated Detroit native kickstarted his career playing John Lennon in a traveling Beatlemania troupe, and went on to portray Buddy Holly in the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. He even published a carefully researched book in 1994, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n' Roll in the Movies, and had no trouble rising to the challenge of composing a slapback-retro rockabilly original for Jake Kasdan's truly hilarious Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. "When I meet my maker on my dying day," sings John C. Reilly's in Crenshaw's title track, "gonna look him in the eye, and by God I'll say, 'I gave my word and my word was good. I took it in the face and walked as hard as I could.'"
From a career perspective, it was a smart move. Crenshaw's rock-solid, Duane Eddy-booming twangathon led to a 2008 Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Original Song, a deal with 429 Records, and a long overdue return to the public spotlight.
"There were situations in the past where I've been asked to write stuff for other films and I just kinda sloughed it off," admits Crenshaw. "I was asked to submit something for [Tom Hanks'] That Thing You Do!, and I just kinda pulled something off the shelf, a song I wrote with Kirsty MacColl a few years earlier. I just sent it to 'em and said, 'Here.' I didn't really put any effort or thought into it, and when they liked it, I felt kinda bad. So when Walk Hard came along, I said 'This time, I'm really gonna do this!' And it worked out great."
These days, Crenshaw still lives off the beaten path in Rhinebeck, the tiny New York town best known as the location for Chelsea Clinton's wedding last year. It was there that he recorded the first few tracks for Jaggedland, after which he went out to Los Angeles to lay down tracks with producer Jerry Boys, whose past clients have included REM, Richard Thompson and Buena Vista Social Club.
Nearly 30 years after songs like "Someday, Someway" and "Cynical Girl" first put him on the map, Crenshaw continues to tour, playing some 50 gigs a year. But while Jaggedland ended a six-year absence from the recording world, it's now been a year and a half since he's released new material. Those days of churning out album after album are long gone.
There's always the possibility, though, of more soundtrack recording. "It only took me 40 minutes," says an amused Crenshaw of the song that got him back into recording. "It was really effortless. I had the music together pretty instantaneously, and while I was watching my daughter take a horseback-riding lesson, I came up with most of the lyrics. It was fast."
Crenshaw coughs, clears his throat, then adds, "Uh ... as opposed to a song for one of my records, which can take months."