Pop-rocker Marshall Crenshaw gets serious and walks the walk

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

22 January 2008

Veteran pop-rock singer-songwriter-guitarist Marshall Crenshaw's title song for "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," was nominated for a Golden Globe. (Allentown Morning Call/MCT) 

When Marshall Crenshaw was approached in May 2005 to write the title song for “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” he took the assignment seriously, even though the satirical film about a singer who overcomes adversity to become a musical legend had not yet been cast, or even greenlighted.

In the past, admits the pop-rocker behind such confections as “Someday Someway,” “Cynical Girl” and “(You’re) My Favorite Waste of Time,” he treated writing songs for films “sort of haphazardly,” because the competition is intense and chances of actually placing a song are slim.

But this time, he buckled down and succeeded in spades. Not only was Crenshaw’s twangy, faux Johnny Cash tune chosen from among 25 or 30 other “Walk Hard” contenders, it was nominated for a Golden Globe. And even though Eddie Vedder’s “Into the Wild” track “Guaranteed” won the trophy on Jan. 13, the song has renewed interest in Crenshaw, one of music’s more underrated tunesmiths.

“I thought (the movie) was hilarious on paper,” says Crenshaw, 54, who saw the script before it was filmed. “I got excited about it. The song came pretty fast. It was pretty instantaneous. It only took a day to write, which is a miracle for me.”

Crenshaw’s diligence was motivated partly by the regret he still feels at not trying harder when asked to contribute a song to the winsome 1996 Tom Hanks-directed cult fave “That Thing You Do!”

“I pulled something I had written with Kirsty MacColl off the shelf and sent it in,” recalls the Detroit-born musician from his home in upstate New York, where he lives with his wife and two children, 10 and 8.

“The song, `All I Ever Wanted,’ was a single in England (in 1991). I wrote the music, she wrote the lyrics. Later, when film (about a rock band that scores a hit in 1964) came out and I saw how good it was, I thought, `I could have gotten a song in this movie.’”

Crenshaw says that while he was not given specific instructions for “Walk Hard,” he did have “parameters” to follow: “The song was supposed to be a hit, and it had to be convincing from a certain time period. ... It had to have a good, strong opening riff, a signature riff.”

After the song was accepted, it ran into “one little snag”: It was only 2 ½ minutes long. Filmmakers Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow needed it to be about four minutes, because it is used in a montage showing Cox’s rise to stardom. “So we collaborated a bit,” says Crenshaw. “Jake and Judd took a couple of lines from the script and used them in the song.”

Consequently Kasdan and Apatow were given a co-writing credit, “and now they (get) 2.5 percent each of the song’s royalties,” says Crenshaw.

Crenshaw attended the film’s premiere. “I wanted to love it of course and I really did. It was really funny, a savvy commentary on pop culture. When I got to the part where (Cox) cuts his brother in half, I said, `This looks like a winner here.’”

Crenshaw isn’t sure if he will play “Walk Hard” at his latest round of shows, although he did so as far back as 2006, more than a year before the film was released.

“I don’t sing it that well,” he explains. “It’s on the low end and high end of my range. ... And I make my set up on the spur of the moment.”

But he will perform a few unreleased tunes destined for an album, tentatively titled “Jagged Land and 12 Others.” Crenshaw hopes to release the disc, his first since 2003’s sorely underappreciated “What’s in the Bag?,” in summer or fall.

The new songs are:

“Sunday Blues,” which he also previewed in 2006. “When I was a kid, I never liked Sundays,” he explains. “They were dreary and boring and I had to go to church in the morning. ... It’s a bluesy rewrite of `Mood Indigo.’ The latest (recorded) version has strings on it.”

“Someone Told Me.” “It’s a humor song about grotesque fat-cat types. It’s an upbeat rock tune.”

“Just Passing Through.” “That’s a joyful song about mortality. It has a good beat and you can dance to it.”

Given that Crenshaw appeared as Buddy Holly in the 1987 film “La Bamba,” did Kasdan or Apatow offer him a cameo in “Walk Hard”?

“Nobody asked,” he laughingly replies.

“But for the DVD, I had to approve a photo of me as Buddy Holly,” he adds warily. “I hope it’s not a joke at my expense.”

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