Profile: How rock producer, performer Michael Crittenden has helped shape West Michigan’s music scene
Published: Sunday, December 18, 2011, 6:28 AM
Local musician and studio owner Michael Crittenden plays guitar along the Rogue River south of Rockford. He’s a diehard fisherman and a member of the band Troll for Trout
Musicians and acquaintances call him “The Colonel.”
At first glance, there is absolutely nothing military-like about Michael Crittenden’s wry smile, rumpled garb and laid-back demeanor.
But put him behind the buttons, sliders and computer screens of his homey Mackinaw Harvest recording studio on Grand Rapids’ West Side, and Crittenden clearly is in command.
Many of those who know him best testify the producer and rock musician’s influence on West Michigan’s music scene the past 15 years has been nothing short of extraordinary.
“I would have never made a record if it wasn’t for his friendship and encouragement,” says Drew Nelson, a veteran Grand Rapids singer-songwriter who just signed with the national Red House Records label. Red House plans to release a new Nelson album recorded in Crittenden’s studio.
“Every time I work with Michael, I learn something. He is as much a student of psychology as anything else. He has a gift of seeing what people need to help get the best out of them. Most often, it’s better than you ever thought you could do.”
The Colonel has gotten the best out of a dazzling array of West Michigan rock bands and solo artists who have passed through his studio, with the visual evidence found in CD covers lining lobby walls: Nelson, Pop Evil, The Four Lincolns, Thirsty Perch Blues Band, Chasing the Sky, Mid-Life Crisis, Spencer Mulder, Brena, Ralston Bowles, Bless You Boys, Josh Rose, Chris Andrus, Allison Downey and more, including Crittenden’s own beloved Troll for Trout folk-rock band.
All of them owe some measure of success — and certainly a great measure of their sound — to Crittenden’s ears and hands, not to mention his top-notch musicianship: A graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Crittenden can pitch in on piano, guitar, bass, harmonica and even banjo during recording sessions.
Guitarist Pete Dunning, friends with Crittenden since they were classmates at East Grand Rapids’ Lakeside Elementary School, calls him “a very compassionate guy” and “a great resource” for West Michigan’s music scene. “He is patient, and he does not quit.”
Credit much of that patience and determination to Crittenden’s long-time passion for fishing. He often skips out to spend a day “in church,” angling the waters of the Pere Marquette or the Rogue River and meditating in his peaceful surroundings.
“The only thing I can do for a long time is fish,” Crittenden says, calling it the perfect way to clear one’s head of “the general buzzing” and bustle of life. “Sometimes, I just like to be out in nature and open up my senses to what’s going on around me. That’s a very spiritual time for me.”
Nickname that stuck
So how did he earn a nickname based on the Col. Crittenden character in the “Hogan’s Heroes” TV show of the ’60s and ’70s?
It goes back to 1995, when Crittenden called on longtime pal and sound engineer Steve Rizzo to record Troll for Trout’s first album at his Newport, R.I., studios.
They had hired Jackie Santos to lay down drum tracks. Santos was the drummer for the John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, which racked up four Top 40 hits in the 1980s.
Crittenden had gone so far as to write out charts for how the drums should be played.
“It was the first time I’d done this record thing, and I was overly anal about it,” he recalls.
He insisted Santos play quick sixteenth notes on his high hat cymbal with one hand for an extended period of time during a long song fadeout, recording the part over and over again to get it right.
“He was getting a little irritated,” Crittenden says, unable to contain a grin. “He says, ‘Man, you know what you want, don’t you? You’re like a military man. You’re like that Col. Crittenden on “Hogan’s Heroes.” I’m giving you the name, The Colonel.’”
The nickname has stuck ever since.
Andrus, a Grand Rapids musician and Mackinaw Harvest recording engineer, insists Crittenden’s “know what you want” style actually is “very common sense and easy to understand. Michael brings a real-life experience as a musician to the table that a lot of other producers don’t. As a person, Michael is a kind soul who is an expert at bringing people together. Michael has created a family of amazing musicians and friends.”
That family extends well beyond the walls of his West Side recording studio, which he opened in a renovated, century-old icehouse off Bridge Street NW in 2007, replacing a studio in the cramped basement of his Cannon Township home.
Back to school
Inspired by friends — local philanthropist John Wheeler and singer-songwriter Phil Biggs — Crittenden has taken a particular interest in bolstering Grand Rapids Public Schools music programs for disadvantaged students.
It started several years ago with Crittenden doing classroom performances and holiday shows for students at Henry Paideia Elementary School, and led to his involvement in “Standing Together” benefit concerts and recordings that have raised about $130,000 for Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Student Advancement Foundation, supporting after-school and literacy programs among other things.
“Colonel is a man of music, through and through,” Wheeler says of Crittenden. “Many things enter his field: fishing, outdoors, camping. But the thread that runs through it all is music. That is why the world is a better place for it. (He has) stamina, loyalty to local music and the ability to stay humble and help everyone he knows.”
This year, Crittenden spearheaded efforts to boost the role of music during ArtPrize, convincing organizers of the art competition to accept songs as entries for the first time and helping coordinate a concert showcasing participating bands and solo artists.
Crittenden, 46, also recently launched an after-school recording school for at-risk students in partnership with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. The Youth Recording Arts Academy, funded with help from Wheeler’s charitable fund, has given high school students access to the kind of gear and expertise at Mackinaw Harvest they’d never have otherwise.
“I think we’ve got to go back and get the kick drum,” Crittenden gently advises a budding teen producer during a recent hands-on class at the sound-mixing console. “Now, we have to assign the input. … Turn it on and see what we’ve got. Let’s hear that kick drum.”
The drum comes through loud and clear, drawing a smile from student Leandro Lara as his classmates look on.
“I’m not a teacher, but at one point, I realized that what I do as a producer is teach,” Crittenden says later, stressing the importance of discipline and team-building. “It’s about problem-solving.”
Crittenden is seeking corporate sponsorship and foundation grants to keep the after-school program going, with an eye toward helping students translate these newfound skills into jobs. “I really want to inspire these kids to get creative in how they’re going to find employment and how they can create work for themselves,” he says.
From a young age
He credits his parents, Keith and Clara Crittenden, a floral shop owner and a teacher, respectively, for instilling in him the attitude and traits that have served him and his older brother, Rodney executive vice president of the Michigan Floral Association, so well over the years.
“They’d say, ‘Do your best work all the time,’ “ Crittenden recalls. “I have good parents. I’m a lucky guy in that regard.”
His father, a floral shop owner, put the brothers to work at a young age, sweeping floors, opening boxes and pricing flowers in his Grand Rapids stores in Alger Heights and Eastbrook Mall. Crittenden drove delivery vehicles and designed floral arrangements to make ends meet over years, even while attending college in Boston.
As a kindergarten teacher for Grand Rapids Public Schools, his mother promulgated the idea “there were other kids who didn’t have what we do,” something that motivates Crittenden to lend a hand to disadvantaged students today.
His father also was a semi-professional singer in college, and performed in a barbershop group and with Grand Rapids’ Schubert Male Chorus.
Perhaps that inspiration — plus a passion for rock ‘n’ roll and piano lessons from the age of 5 — led to Crittenden’s early brush with fame: winning his East Grand Rapids elementary school’s talent contest, with Dunning, as members of The Five Lions rock band.
They wowed the young crowd by playing Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” complete with black lights and stage fog (courtesy of 30 pounds of dry ice purchased by Crittenden’s mother from Baskin-Robbins). “I was in the ‘rock show’ from the get-go,” Crittenden says. “It was awesome. We won hands down for that.”
Five things to know about Michael Crittenden:
• Diagnosed with Perthes, a painful hip condition, he walked with crutches and had corrective surgery that caused him to miss part of third grade. He underwent a hip replacement in 1997 and followup surgery in 2010. “It’s just something I’ve always lived with. I couldn’t run around or ride a bike, so I sat in the house and played a lot of piano, and sat in boats and did a lot of fishing. That’s pretty much who I am, I guess.”
• Despite his nickname, The Colonel has a reputation for tardiness, not punctual, military precision. “They call it ‘Colonel time.’ I’m always late,” he concedes. “I don’t move very quickly.”
• He worked briefly as a taxicab driver, maneuvering the mean, crazy streets of Boston. “It was brutal,” he recalls. “It was hard. You’d end up working 20 hours for like $50. That’s a long day.”
• He’s pals with rock star Anthony Kiedis of the Grammy-winning Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose family has a place next to the Crittenden family cottage. Once, as Crittenden and Kiedis fished off a dock, a passing boater spotted them. “Hey, look,” the teen gushed. “There’s the dude from Troll for Trout!” Crittenden loves telling this story.
• Crittenden has dabbled in radio at various times, first in Boston in the 1980s, and later in Grand Rapids, selling ads for WGRD-FM in 1993-94. He hosted WGRD’s Radioactive show in 2000.
Crittenden and Dunning would later play middle school dances for their first taste of the rock-star spotlight. “When we played at school it was one of the first times that girls ever paid attention to me,” Crittenden adds.
“I said, ‘Oooh, this is cool. I like this.’”
At East Grand Rapids High School, Crittenden and Dunning formed the band Stonebreaker with friends Andy Shackelford and Mark Brower, performing at high schools throughout the Grand Rapids area. The band even opened a bank account.
After high school, Crittenden briefly attended Michigan State University and Grand Rapids Community College while working and “doing a lot of socializing.”
Eventually, John Neil, a friend and future member of Troll for Trout, convinced him to apply to Berklee. Crittenden auditioned on piano to gain entry into the renowned music school in 1985.
Rubbing elbows with talented musicians and music industry executives in Boston also gave Crittenden his first taste of the big-time. His rock band at that time, The Westmorelands, came within a whisker of getting signed to a major record label, so close Crittenden even dropped out of Berklee during his senior year.
“But we couldn’t get enough traction to get a deal,” says Crittenden, who eventually finished his degree before returning to Grand Rapids in 1992.
Birth of a band
Back in West Michigan, he bumped into an old friend, Jim LeValley, with whom he started working up songs. When Dunning returned after a stay in California, Troll for Trout was born.
“I had an idea for this band in my head: an outdoors thing with a bigger sound, kind of acoustic and kind of Up North,” Crittenden recalls. “I did a list of band names on a pad of paper. Mackinaw Harvest was on it, too. Troll for Trout just kept sticking out to me.”
The trio’s first gig came at Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts in 1993. Band members used pre-programmed drums and bass parts, and played up the outdoorsy theme in schlocky fashion by wearing fishing vests on stage.
By the time they played Festival again in 1994, Troll for Trout, with its unique folk-rock sound, had grown to a full band, leading to regular gigs and its first full-length studio album recorded at that Rhode Island studio. Soon after, the band — featuring Crittenden, Dunning, LeValley, Neil, Brian Morrill and John Connors — caught fire as a hard-touring Midwest band, attracting serious radio airplay.
Troll for Trout’s popularity continued to soar in the late ‘90s with band members “living the dream” as full-time musicians — recording, touring from New York to Colorado, and selling more than 25,000 CDs. In 1999, Troll for Trout played in front of 23,000 people at Muskegon’s Summer Celebration, opening for Hootie & the Blowfish.
But a deal with Boston’s Rounder Records fell through due to a label takeover, and the band ran into problems with a new booking agent. Troll for Trout called it quits in 2001.
Shift in focus
Even though the band would eventually reunite, the change in Troll for Trout’s fortunes signaled a career shift for Crittenden. He was now focusing more on his self-taught passion for recording and producing other acts, along with performing solo shows and working with other bands. (Watch a video of Crittenden performing a holiday song during a recent in-studio appearance on the Local Spins Live segment on News Talk 1340 AM WJRW here.)
“I was starting to get a client base, not knowing what it would lead to,” he says. “But I had always arranged and recorded our own stuff. Ninety percent of what you’re doing is problem-solving.”
Morrill says Crittenden has an uncanny knack for getting “the music to shine with great little tips throughout the recording process,” not to mention nurturing young artists seeking his advice and counsel.
“Michael really mentored me as I came up in the music scene,” adds Andrus. “He helped me get the right gigs early on and guided me as a singer and performer. No matter which band I was in, he always made sure we had the right gear and sounded good.”
Crittenden has weathered some setbacks. He’s in the midst of a divorce from his wife, Christine, and he suffered a very public — albeit mild — heart attack during a 2003 performance by Troll for Trout at WYCE-FM’s Jammie Awards show. He was rushed to the hospital for treatment immediately after leaving the stage.
“Until then, I did not know I had any issues with coronary artery disease,” he says. “It was totally a wake-up call. I promptly quit smoking, changed my diet and started exercising. I am in way better health now than I was prior to ‘the incident.’ ”
Two years ago, Crittenden’s life changed dramatically again. That’s when his only child, daughter Tara Cleveland, contacted him via email.
In 1987, Crittenden and the child’s mother gave their infant daughter up for adoption, believing they were in no position to raise her at that time. He had long hoped she might try to contact him after she turned 18, but that birthday passed without any word from her.
“I’d do the math every year to see how old she would be,” Crittenden says. “I started thinking I might not ever hear from her.”
As luck would have it, not only did she eventually contact her father after graduating from Western Michigan University, but she informed Crittenden that she’s a singer and musician.
“I was blown away when I got the email,” said Crittenden, noting the long-awaited message led to “a six-hour lunch” with his daughter where they tried to catch up on all those intervening years. Now 24, Cleveland is a high school choral director outside Phoenix, Ariz.. The two get together whenever they can.
So far, though, Cleveland has shown “zero interest” in having her dad teach her how to fish, an art that Crittenden’s mother and grandmother passed down to him when the family would stay at a rented cottage on Otsego Lake near Gaylord.
“I just loved it. It was always good to just go out in a boat and sit and catch bluegills,” he explains, insisting there are important life lessons to be learned when dropping a line into the water.
“You’re looking for an opportunity when you’re fishing. You’re trying to read the water and guess the behavior of fish and what’s going on with the flow of the river and the temperature and the lighting and all of it.
“In life, you’re trying to stay in tune with what’s going on around you, with what’s happening right in front of your eyes every day. A lot of it is pretty awesome, and a lot of it we let go by because we’re not paying attention.”