Greatness wears a big beard
World's best rock fiddle player also inspires
By Leif M. Wright
MUSKOGEE PHOENIX 7/20
When you're talking to him, you can't help thinking the world would be a whole lot better if everyone was more like Randy Crouch.
You could be the coolest person in the room or the nerdiest, and you get the feeling that Crouch wouldn't notice either way.
And if anyone has a right to be snooty, it would be him. He is master of more instruments than most people could ever dream of even being good at. He has sat in on more bands than he can remember, and that's not a sign of a bad memory - just of an illustrious career of greatness.
"I once saw him play where he's over a steel guitar and a piano while he's playing fiddle," said Jim Blair, co-owner of Max's Garage and one of Crouch's musical compatriots. "In the middle of the song, he wants to tune up the fiddle, so he hits the A note on the piano with his fiddle bow and tunes the string and keeps on playing."
In pretty standard fashion, the Tahlequah-based Crouch downplays his virtuosity.
"I hate to play keyboards in front of a real keyboard player," he said. "As long as I don't know they're there, I do OK, but if I know they're there, I'll play bad."
Take that with a grain of salt, would you? No one seems to have ever heard Crouch play poorly.
In fact, just about everyone you talk to who has heard him play has nothing but awe to convey.
"I don't know," he says in response to a question about his playing. "I just think any day on this side of the dirt is a good one."
And that pretty much sums up Crouch's attitude and the way he conducts himself.
If he has a chip on his shoulder, Sherlock Holmes might have trouble finding it. No one ever seems to have seen him in a bad mood, his wild hair and long beard always in front of a smile and friendly pair of eyes ready to greet you as if you were a long-lost sibling.
The master of many instruments started out fairly inconspicuously, playing ukelele around his parents' house, moving from instrument to instrument until he ended up with a Fender Stratocaster, and that's when everything clicked.
That was in the mid- to late 1960s, and the music scene was different in those days, even if the pay, according to Crouch, was just about the same as it is today.
"Back then, I played in Tulsa at the Cain's a lot," he said. "Back when it was really dangerous to go out there. We'd play whiskey bottles, finish them and thrown them into the crowd and hit people on the head with them."
The music was raw, exciting and new. The band Crouch played with in high school played songs by the Wipeouts, Charlie Parker and others. He learned how to play by listening to records, and he saw no difference between Roger Miller and the Beatles.
"It's all good music," he said. "I tried to learn as many songs as I could, and then when Jimi Hendrix came out, I realized you could do so much more with the guitar."
Crouch is hardly alone in that change-of-life moment, but he also makes it sound as if he hasn't influenced an entire generation of musicians himself.
If guitar was his only instrument, he would be regarded as a legend. But Crouch is more known as the best rock and roll fiddle player in the world, a label he would probably reject.
Even so, if fiddle was his only instrument, he would be remembered for being so incredibly good on the instrument that others' jaws literally dropped when they heard him play. But just as you're ready to write his legacy on that instrument, you have to consider his steel guitar playing. And then his keyboard playing. And his slide mandolin. And ... well, just about every instrument he's ever picked up.
But don't let him hear you talking about that, because he'll quickly change the subject.
"Have you heard Harley Hamm?" he asks, speaking of the Muskogee guitarist and singer. "That guy is incredible. I love listening to him!"
That same redirect keeps happening. Have you listened to David Teagarden play drums? Man, that My-Tea Kind is such a good group. Badwater? They're really great. The fact, however, is that, as Blair says, Crouch just seems to make everyone he plays with sound good.
When he plays with other bands such as the Red Dirt Rangers, Crouch plays fiddle or steel guitar. But when his band, which is now semi-retired, plays, he plays guitar.
"That's how I wrote my songs," he said.
That's another thing. His songs. Crouch has a knack for turning a phrase. And his personality can't help but come through.
"I wish I had a car that would run on air," he sings in his song "High as the Price of Gas." "I wish everyone was a zillionaire."
That's a pretty good summary of Crouch's personality, Blair said.
"Let me tell you two things about Randy Crouch. First and most important, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet," he said. "Second, he's a musical genius."
And that's an order of importance that many people miss about Crouch until they meet him. Seeing him on stage, you'd figure musical genius would come first. How could anyone be so great on so many instruments without that being their life's primary focus? But in Crouch, you see it's the opposite. His primary focus appears to be just being a good person. The music is just an extension of that. And so is his living arrangement.
"I build domes," he said, as if that was the most common thing in the world. "Well, really it's a pyramid and a dome. It's kind of hard to explain."
That, combined with his mountain man appearance, and it's not difficult to imagine Crouch living off the grid, completely from the land.
"I was just at the Woody Guthrie festival," he says. "Aww, man, it was enlightening. I don't think I'll ever get rid of all the mud, but I think I want to keep some of it around."
And that's really the epitome of what Blair calls a "really low-maintenance guy."
He seems to just enjoy life, and if problems come, he deals with them in style, playing his music with a smile and making just about everyone feel the joy.
"When I first saw him, I was playing with Garth Brooks and opening for New Grass Revival in 1984," Blair said. "We left the show and went into town and saw Randy Crouch, and I was blown away. It was the perfect topping to an already great night. Twenty-three years later, to be able to play with him as much as I do is an extreme pleasure."
The admiration is mutual. Crouch says Blair is someone he likes to brag on.
"When he plays his original songs, I can't quit laughing," Crouch said. "Sometimes it's hard to play because his songs are so funny and I start laughing."
Even with all the success he's had, it seems like he might be just as happy sitting around with old friends at an impromptu jam session.
"It would be nice to just make a backpack guitar and a fiddle and unpack them when you got home," he said. "They'd be a part of your house when you got there. When everyone gets together, you just put together all the pieces and have big old party dome and circle the wagons."
There's something attractive about that concept, something fundamentally removed from the stress and strain of the rat race. Crouch embodies that alternative, appearing like a red dirt hippie who never lost the love of the movement, never lost the wonder of just peering at the world around him and never had any reason to make enemies.
And of course, the music. Music for Crouch is as natural as talking or sitting.
"I have to force myself to go home when I play with him," Blair said. "Because he just won't stop."
And that's a good thing for music.