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"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof s— detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have it." — Ernest Hemingway.
Absolutely. And that goes double for songwriters. Fortunately, Londa Crenshaw has one of the best excrement detectors in Louisville. And she's not afraid to point out the ca-ca and let the cow chips fall where they may.
I like that. How can you not like that? Just a few of the things that set Crenshaw's on-board radar to MAX ALERT is prima donna musicians, artists willing to compromise their art by adopting phony, political agendas for monetary gain and goofhead music journalists (like me) who get it all wrong.
But I'm starting to paint a picture here of a real emasculator and that's just not the case at all. Let's start over.
"This music is forever for me. It's the stage thing, that rush moment that you live for. It never lasts, but that's what you live for." — Bruce Springsteen.
"Lean your body forward slightly to support the guitar against your chest, for the poetry of the music should respond from your heart." — Andres Segovia.
"When I get too tired to carry the equipment, that's when I'll quit." — Londa Crenshaw.
It all started for Londa:Crenshaw at the tender age of five. She began her musical career by banging on her grandmother's piano in the parlor. Actually, she didn't really bang on it — that's what the other grandchildren did. Londa tried to make music and her grandmother noticed the subtle difference. "You better get that girl some lessons," she told Londa's mother, "She can play."
Crenshaw credits dance as her intro to the stage. "I was about six and we went to a ballet recital. I saw all these little girls up on stage dancing and I thought, that's for me! I wanna be on stage!""
As she got older, the music began to take over and by third grade Londa was playing violin with the school orchestra. But there was something missing.
"Later on, I traded the violin for a guitar, mainly because the classical stuff was just a little too academic — you just couldn't jam on violin and I needed that, that ability to jam."
Crenshaw was enrolled at the University of Louisville to study languages and was working at St. Joseph's hospital when she got her first paid gig. It was at Dollars Tavem (which was later to become Uncle Pleasant's and is now the Flashback), a college hangout that advertised "six draughts for a buck" and was conveniently located right around the corner from St. Ioseph's.
"I was working in the lab, doing blood work. I would go to school, go to work, change clothes, grab my guitar and head for the club. After about a month of this, I dropped out of school, quit my job and became a full-time musician."
Teaming up with three other local artists, the acoustic-based band Oasis was formed and a posh gig in the Virgin Islands turned into a wicked business opportunity. While on vacation, a Department of Defense official saw Oasis play and signed the band up for a U.S.O. tour of the world.
Evidently, it wasn't so much the talent the U.S.O. wanted, but the band's weight. As a primarily acoustic act, the band's equipment was a good deal lighter than other bands' rigs and this lack of deadweight was perfect for choppering in to small military bases via Huey gunships. Just like Apocalypse Now.
Londa herself describes her stint for the military as a "Government-sponsored shopping trip." Playing such exotic locations as the top of Mt. Fuji in Japan and strange, mythical spots in the seemingly forbidden country of Turkey was just what the doctor had ordered. Londa had promised herself not to fritter away her youth in Louisville and Uncle Sam was just the agent for change she needed. After six months of living on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, the world-wide whirlwind tour was the proper medicine to treat her wanderlust and by the end of the contract she was ready to come home.
"The one thing all that travel taught me is that Louisville's really not that bad a place after all. Living in paradise on an island is a great fantasy, but after a while it gets old. You get island fever. There's a line all around you (on an island) and you feel cut off. After a while you just want to go stateside and maybe go to a strip mall or a Burger King or something."
After returning to the states, Londa married and had a son, Dylan, who is now sixteen. When I asked her if she had any problems with "musician's ego," she smiled and said, "l'm a mom. Mom's don't get to have egos."
Londa (now divorced), told me that she and her ex-husband are on excellent terms and that she is proud of that fact.
"I've seen too many kids screwed up by all the lawyers and courtroom scenes and Dylan's father and I agreed not to let that happen."
It was during this period of her life that Londa settled into the acoustic solo act that has been her mainstay for nearly 20 years. She said that the birth of her child made her want to be more of a homebody and gigging out of town no longer held much interest for her. "A lot of people ask me why I'm still here. When you have a kid and a home, that's where you go back to. I didn't want to miss a day of my son's life."
So she began to build up a large catalog of songs ("I've written over a hundred"), solid relationships with local club owners and a hefty amount of dedicated fans. "I've got old-timers that have been coming to my shows for decades, driving in from all around the state. But I don't overlook the importance of newcomers, the younger kids. They are what keeps me alive on stage — they hoot and holler and force me to perform at a certain level and that's what keeps my shows fresh."
Indeed. On stage Londa is a direct reﬂection of herself off stage. She is highly vocal, cracking jokes and constantly trying to keep the audience entertained, both through her own performance as well as a little audience participation.
"I pass out instruments, you know, maracas, tambourines and the like and try to get them to keep the beat. The kids love it. People bring their kids to the show on their birthdays and make sure they're up front so they can join in. It's a throwback to my P.T.A. years with Dylan. I'd get a call from some teacher asking if I could maybe bake some brownies to bring to the meetings and I'd say, 'Well, yeah, but there's something I do better than baking brownies,' and then I'd show up with my guitar. After a while the other mothers would be like 'where's Londa? Is Londa gonna be here tonight?"'
Recently, when I caught Londa's show at Clifton's Pizza, I walked in during the middle of the set and sure enough there was some major audience participation going on. A large table of teenagers from YPAS were singing along, beating on the table and doing their very best to fill up the place with raucous good music. Their attempts were perhaps a bit sloppy, but Londa's playing provided them with a perfect framework within which they could ad lib to their hearts'content. Londa's guitarwork is crafty and expert, with no room for fumbling. Popping crisp notes and bright, proud chords mixed with an undercurrent of electricity that I've always envied in good acoustic players. Combined with Londa's throaty, Janis Joplinesque truck-driving, cigarette-smoking, whiskey-swilling voice, Ms. Crenshaw's music is obviously the result of years of patient practice and on-the-roadback-to-the-club-then-the-hotel-then-maybe-the-PX experiences. Not to mention the day-to-day grind of real life away from the sun-burnt shores of island paradise.
Not to say Londa's music is dreary, or angst-filled. Her work is more on the satiric side, a wry look at many of the complexities of living and relationships. Songs like "Everybody Oughta Have a Wife," and "Making Love to You — I Get Off Better By Myself" focus on the compromises and struggles women have to make in pair-bonding relationships. "It's funny, but the women in the audience are always pinching their husbands and saying 'yeah! yeah!' to the lyrics and the husbands, they're always like 'thanks a lot, Londa!'"
Even with the requisite male-bashing, Londa maintains a fairly even split of male and female fans. What women relate to in the lyrics is probably directly opposed to what the men hear in her throaty, sexy voice, but so what? You have to allow for hormones.
Twenty years of gigging all around Louisville has built a rock-steady reputation for the blonde powerhouse.
"Bar owners tell me I pull a good crowd. My only gripe is that while beer prices and receipts have risen steadily, musicians' wages have stayed the same and in some cases dropped. When you've been doing this stuff as long as I have, you come to expect a decent wage. Unfortunately, younger musicians, living at home and just getting started will work for almost nothing and that drives the market price down for everyone."
Crenshaw also credits the LPD's T.A.P. program of several years ago to damaging the city's nightclub scene. "It got so people were afraid to come out anymore. They'd save their weekends, but the whole Monday-through-Friday live music thing was badly damaged."
Even with the cops busting music enthusiasts and certain nameless club owners pimping teenagers, Londa has burst through the wall (or ceiling, if you will) of the male-dominated music industry and is poised on the brink of a whole new level of success.
She was recently voted in as president of MERF, the Musicians Emergency Relief Fund ("I guess I shot my mouth off one too many times about what should be done," she confided) and is working in the studio with fellow musicians (Ray Rizzo, Greg Foresman, Max Maxwell, just to name a few) on a project being produced by Howie Gano, tentatively titled "Starblind" to be released on CD and cassette.
The one thing that struck me about Londa's personality (besides her excellent sense of humor) was her complete openness. Unafraid to call them as she sees them, Crenshaw goes out of her way to let you know she is sincere in all that she says and does. I think this is reﬂected in both her music and her commitment to the local music scene, as is evidenced by her participation in the aforementioned MERF. Founded by Marvin Maxwell, MERF is in its 14th year of helping to provide support for local musicians who have been blindsided by life's little indelicacies. "Everybody involved was getting a little burnt out and there was some concern that MERF might dissolve," was Londa's take. The vice-president at the time, Mark Langley, convinced Crenshaw to become more involved and nominated her for the presidency. Londa wants to try and get the city's younger musicians and alternative acts to become more involved in MERF. "These kids are only twenty now, but before they know it they'll be thirty and forty years old and MERF will look more like a necessary thing to them."
Londa hopes to involve more women and minorities in the benefits that MERF provides. She feels everyone is entitled, regardless of race, creed, personal beliefs, etc. No doubt her own experiences contribute to this philosophy.
It's really quite ironic that Londa now finds herself in the position to write grants for needy musicians. Back in the '80s, when her music wasn't paying the bills as well as it does now, she applied to the Sallie Bingham Foundation for a grant herself, but was turned down.
"I knew there were certain things I could do to ensure that I got the grant, but was unwilling to compromise myself or my family—I had Leon (Driskell) write into the proposal that I just wanted her (Bingham's) money, not her politics and I don't think that went over too well."
Everything happens for a reason and Londa's experience might have been just the prodding she needed. Her grueling schedule, playing two to three gigs a week at places like Clifton's, Phoenix Hill and the Bluegrass Brewing Company, is evidence of her diligence and professionalism.
Even though she thinks that women's position in the industry has gotten better, there is still along way to go. Today's young female musicians have hundreds of role models, whereas Londa, when she first started out, had none (with the possible exception of Joni Mitchell, whose alternative tunings made it difficult to "play by ear") and was forced to forge her own style from watching and listening to male rock stars like Neil Young and Eric Clapton.
Londa told me she sees herself as being quite lucky and has no real regrets. When I asked her if she would change any part of her life, she grinned and said she wouldn't mind being "tall and thin with curly hair and a soprano voice." But the truth was revealed when later she commented offhandedly that "you get to pick whether you're happy or not, no matter who you are or where you are and I generally choose to be happy."
Londa has been working very hard lately on MERF's upcoming benefit "Calm Before the Storm." The event happens on April 22 from 10 a. m. until 6 p. m. at the New Albany Amphitheater, prior to "Thunder Over Louisville." Get it? For additional details, see MERF's ad on the back page of this issue.)