Do you remember the first record (cassette-CD-stream) you listened to when you were a child? Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist Richard Krueger does. He was always drawn to music, intent on listening to it, and thorough in devouring all that was available to him that he married himself to his parents record collection at a young age: The Beatles. Earl Scruggs. Merle Haggard. Lester Flatt. Johnny Cash. And most memorably, a Time-Life vinyl box set called THE BADMEN filled with songs about outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James sung by Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ed McCurdy and more. These singers, along with Bobby Darin and Glen Campbell, had such a profound effect on Rich, that even he may not have realized how deeply for many years to come.
Always musical, at age 6, Rich was the youngest person to ever sing in his Church’s adult choir. He took piano and guitar lessons, but never felt it came easily for him. “I loved being involved in music, and people thought I sang well for a kid, but I was always impressed by children that I thought were gifted. I felt I had to work at it. I wasn’t aware that maybe I had a gift I hadn’t tapped in to yet.”
After his mother remarried, Rich moved to Philadelphia in his teens and was further exposed to music he wouldn’t have come across on his own, including Belgian singer Jacques Brel, who Krueger says “changed his life.” His step father introduced him to Mike Nichols’ “Midnight Special” radio show, and the music Mike played advanced Rich’s exploration. By the late 70s, punk was making its way to the US; Rich caught an episode of the news program WEEKEND, where the punk scene in the UK was profiled. Although the focus was on what they perceived as violence in the movement, Rich’s interest was piqued. Another deep dive in to a genre. “I started reading the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and anything Lester Bangs wrote. Every free nickel I had went to buying records and listening like they were religious texts. When I couldn’t make out the words, I would make them up – which was my first exercise in writing songs.”
Heading back to Chicago for college, Rich brought his guitar and continued his all-consuming hobby of loving music. Because he got to choose some electives as a freshman, he picked an Introduction to Music class taught by American musicologist and historian Philip Gossett. “I wrote a piece as an assignment and he spent the entire class talking about it. I was blown away.” A second assignment led to Rich assessing the music in such a unique way that Gossett, and in fact the whole music dept, felt they’d discover a musical genius and convinced Rich he did indeed have a gift.
While music was his great love, Rich stayed in the Midwest after graduation and enrolled in medical school. Chicago, the home to comedy improv, proved critical to his musical growth. “I had friends in Improv and they put together a Cabaret. I asked to be one of their opening acts and they said I could if I composed original music. This gave me an excuse to start writing songs. I view this as the beginning of me becoming a real musician.”
Rich played in a band called The Dysfunctionells throughout med school, residencies and fellowships. Rich struck up a life long close friendship with Peter Stampfel from the groundbreaking acid-folk band Holy Modal Rounders. Rich’s band backed Peter up and recorded with him, playing a handful of live shows with him, including several gigs at The Mercury Lounge and Bottom Line in New York City, including the Rounders Reunion show in 1996.
Shortly thereafter, Rich decided to devote himself to both medicine and his growing family. He took a job at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and, besides being a part of the praise band at church, didn’t perform again until…. “I went to college with Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, the writers of the Broadway show URINETOWN, which had opened a week after September 11th. They were among a handful of songwriters that were asked to submit a song to the New York Times regarding the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Their song, “The Ballad of Mary O’Connor,” was selected to be a part of Brave New World, American Theatres Response to 9/11, and they asked me to sing it at Town Hall.” Knowing he would be performing alongside talent such as Alec Baldwin, Bebe Neuwirth and Josh Radnor, Rich took the ask very seriously, booking studio time in Los Angeles – something he’d never done before – to cut a demo of the track to make sure they liked the way he sung it. They did.
The performance at Town Hall would mark the last time Rich played live for several years. A move to New Mexico, and a job he wasn’t crazy about, was the impetus for Rich to want to perform his music again. “I started to play at open mic events to keep myself both busy and happy. When I had done shows with The Dysfunctionells, I was very self-conscious, but now I didn’t give a damn how the shows go. I started writing music again, then moved back to Chicago where I continued performing. People seemed to really like what I was doing and asked why I hadn’t recorded an album yet.” Having met a level of success in his medical career as a neonatologist, Rich was ready to invest both time and money in the hobby he had been passionate about since childhood.
Rich booked studio time, put together a stellar band, and recorded his first album, LIFE AINT THAT LONG, which came out in January, 2018. For years he’d submitted himself for the Kerrville New Folk Competition, which was established in 1972 by Peter Yarrow. Winners of this revered prize include Steve Earl, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and, in 2018, Richard Krueger. Rich had entered several times and had never even been accepted; in 2018 he won, an enormous honor for any singer/songwriter. Rich then put out his second record, NowTHEN, at the end of 2018. Both albums featured an incredible collection of performers including Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart), Robbie Fulks, Peter Stampfel, John Fulbright, Erik Frandsen (The Colbert Report), Casey McDonogh (NRBQ), Jay Ansill and Jim Becker (Iron & Wine).
LIFE AINT THAT LONG and NowTHEN were both internationally critically acclaimed, with esteemed rock journalist Robert Christgau giving both albums an “A” grade. Recently the CBS News magazine show, CBS Sunday Morning, began filming Rich while doing his hospital work as well as performing live at shows in New York and Chicago for an upcoming profile.
A doctor that sings – surely there was once a television show about that? Rich always loved to sing, always had ideas to write about, always inspired by music he heard. You know, they’re not such different pursuits, really. “It’s observation. What a doctor does is observe and then make a diagnosis. What a songwriter does is create an experience with meaning from an observation. Both are a form of mindfulness on some level.”
With COVID scuttering plans to go back in to the Studio, Rich set his sights on the demos he recorded back in 2002 as he was preparing to perform at Town Hall. A much different release, THE TROTH SESSIONS features just Rich and his guitar. Called Troth after the word “Betrothed,” the music is all about relationships. “It occurred to me that several of the songs have to do with break ups and marriages. The first track, “True, True Love,” is the one I wrote for a friend’s wedding, and, at the time, it was the first song I’d written in 5 years. I wouldn’t write another one until 6 years later”
There is a joy Rich gets when playing live shows with his band, a feeling like no other. He loves interacting with the audience and hearing their reaction to his music. But those songs? “I am most proud of my songs. That was always the impetus to get out there as a singer and a songwriter. I felt I owed it to the songs. They’re like children to me. I never went in to the Studio to get famous or even noticed. I did it because I felt obliged to bring these tracks to fruition. Sometimes I feel like I am watching a movie and this isn’t my real life. To get the chance to not only make music, but have people be interested and want to hear it? A dream come true!”