By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Last March, the Dallas Observer published a list of rules ("The rules of rock," March 17, 1999), a guide that specified more than 100 things local musicians should and shouldn't do. Among them were tips such as "Getting a tattoo is like sewing platform shoes to your feet," and "Don't take your shirt off onstage." Not that anyone noticed, or even took the list seriously, except for the handful of people who felt certain rules had been directed specifically at them. It was an easy mistake, because many of them, especially rule No. 96 ("Don't have your girlfriend or roommate offer to write a story about you for the Dallas Observer") applied to many local bands, at least the ones that frequent the stages at The Rock and Club Dada. Sorry for the confusion, fellas.
While much of the list was delivered with tongues firmly in cheek, a few of the rules were not meant to be funny, particularly the ones about not sleeping with one of your bandmates or joining a band with a married couple. For many reasons, it's just not a good idea to get involved with people who are involved. For example, when the couple breaks up, usually the band does too, and if you've ever tried to divide mutual possessions after a split, imagine what happens when band members and songs are on the table. And even without bringing that worst-case scenario into play, think of the outcome of a couple, married or otherwise, coming down on opposite sides of a decision affecting the group. Not so good, boss.
But try telling that to Amy Crenshaw. For her, being in a band with her husband Mitchell only means they get to spend more time together. And they've found the best way around any potential problems: not taking any of it too seriously.
"Well, you know, I've been in a band with my husband for a very long time," Crenshaw says. "We've been doing something together since 1990, when we had Hank & Patsy. I like it. It's something we can do together. There's usually no conflicts. It just seems kind of natural. I do most of my writing with other people."
Amy and Mitchell Crenshaw are the exception that proves the rule. They've been married almost 14 years, and for much of that time, they've been playing in bands together, first as Hank & Patsy, and now in Amy Crenshaw and the Crosstown Boys, which just released its self-titled debut. Maybe there haven't been any problems because they figured out a long time ago who was in charge: Amy. At least, that's how it seems from the outside looking in. For instance, when Mitchell's letter to the Observer -- sticking up for Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars' latest CD, The One and Only, after Christina Rees gave the disc a thumbs-down review (Out Here, September 16, 1999) -- was attacked by a few readers, Amy responded with her own letter. "As for it being 'ironic' that the two readers coming to Kim's defense are 'her biggest yes men,'" Crenshaw wrote, "well, one of those 'yes men' answers yes to no one but his wife -- me."
Though it may appear from Crenshaw's back-handed compliment that the marriage is a bit of a one-sided arrangement, that's not necessarily true. Sure, Amy writes the songs and Mitchell plays them, but he takes the lead where the band's business affairs are concerned. And Mitchell -- the brother of Marshall Crenshaw, known for his string of new-wave records on Warner Bros. Records in the early 1980s -- was the one calling the shots when the couple opened up the Lava Lounge on Main Street in late 1996. For the most part, however, theirs is a relationship based on equality, both of them making decisions together.
Even the couple's brief stint operating the Lava Lounge, a haven for the rockabilly and old-school country they both loved, was a full partnership, though Amy had no experience with anything involving nightclubs except for playing in them. Mitchell, on the other hand, had managed several bars, including a long stint at the Inwood Lounge. But opening a club meant the end of Hank & Patsy, and Amy wanted to continue mixing business and pleasure with her husband. She had already quit her job to have a child, so it wasn't a hard choice. But the Crenshaws found out how hard it is for a new club to open in Deep Ellum. More to the point, they learned how hard it is for a new club to stay open in Deep Ellum.
"I decided that it would be something interesting to try," she says. "It was." She pauses, laughing. "When we had really great moments, it was fabulous. We had a good time with it, but you know, there were business issues. Deep Ellum is a real interesting place to have a business. You're playing with the big boys down there. I mean, it was a challenge. We did it all by ourselves, with all our own money. We made our own decisions. That was invaluable experience. We gained a lot of great contacts, great friendships, and we retained all of those. We got to meet some really neat people in the music industry through the acts that came through. We don't regret it at all. It was just a very interesting experience, a very tumultuous experience."
The best result of the Crenshaws' short-lived club was Amy Crenshaw and the Crosstown Boys. They met drummer David Falk and bassist David Bennett when they both played at the Lava Lounge, with Kim Lenz and Max Stevens, respectively. After the club closed in early 1998, the Crenshaws were both ready to pick up where they had left off when they had to choose between the Lava Lounge and their band; and in Falk and Bennett, they had found willing accomplices. Well, that's not entirely true: They wanted to pick up where they left off, but they were ready to drop Hank & Patsy.
Hank & Patsy -- a name and a sound based on the idea of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline performing duets -- was surprisingly successful. The Crenshaws hadn't meant for anything to really come of the project, but the group stuck around almost seven years, becoming more serious as it went on. Hank & Patsy even sold a song to Warner Bros. for inclusion in a made-for-TV movie about Marina Oswald starring Helena Bonham Carter, 1993's Fatal Deception: Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald. The band provided Amy with good memories, but she and Mitchell both wanted to broaden their scope when the time came to be in a band again.
"We got a lot of mileage out of that band," Crenshaw says. "We had a bass player who was also a gaffer for local movie productions, and he got us a gig with a made-for-television movie that was filmed here for David Wolper Productions. It was a pretty bad show, unfortunately, but it seems to play an awful lot, so we get those little pennies dribbling in. That was a thrill, and we got to go to South by Southwest and play at the Continental Club. We wrote some good songs, but as far as Amy Crenshaw and the Crosstown Boys, I was really ready to shed my layers and do something completely different, and do something with more vocals."
Amy Crenshaw and the Crosstown Boys reflects that desire, putting Crenshaw's vocals front and center in the mix. The disc doesn't move that far away from Hank & Patsy's trad-country leanings -- there's even a cover of Cline's "Sweet Dreams" -- though it does pick up the pace quite a bit, thanks to lead guitarist and producer Alan Wooley, late of Killbilly and the Cartwrights. Crenshaw says she had wanted to work with Wooley since she moved to Dallas from Manhattan in the late 1980s. After the Crosstown Boys quickly went through their original guitarist, Crenshaw found herself with that chance, and Wooley ended up writing or co-writing nine of the album's 13 tracks.
Having Wooley as a songwriting partner allows the Crenshaws to avoid one of the main problems that occurs when a couple is in the same band together: competitiveness. But to hear Amy explain it, they'd probably even find a way around that if they had to.
"It gets better every day," she says. "I met Mitchell through his brother, because I knew Marshall way back in the late '70s in New York City, and I always knew I would want my very own Crenshaw." She laughs. "It just took a while for me to find the one that was available."