Neonatologist singer-songwriter Rich Krueger
University of Chicago doctor moonlights as singer-songwriter and threatens to become overnight sensation after decades on fringe
By Ted Cox
“I’m a guy who plays for other artists,” says Rich Krueger.
Krueger is a singer and songwriter who’s been writing and performing in Chicago off and on for more than 30 years, and up until now he’s been known — by those who know him at all — as something of an aficionado’s choice, a songwriter’s songwriter.
“I usually don’t even like to do gigs. It’s a drag getting people out, because I’m a small fish,” he adds, sitting in his Evergreen Park home. “I’ve mostly played open mikes and stuff.”
He might have caught your ear with his reedy voice, or the offhand, conversational way he has with a lyric. But even then it’s not likely his name lodged in your head as someone to remember and watch out for.
That, however, might be changing. Krueger’s album “Life Ain’t That Long,” which he considers his first formal release, came out a year ago, and last February it suddenly, out of nowhere, earned an A grade from Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics” and longtime writer of a regularly published “Consumer Guide” in The Village Voice. Christgau lauded Krueger’s “wavery high baritone that hurts so much it'll make ordinary mortals wince.”
It didn’t make Krueger a household name — not even in Chicago or Evergreen Park — but it did give him the incentive to rush out the followup, “NOWThen,” before the end of the year. Christgau gave that an A-, calling Krueger “a literary songwriter of the first rank … who's reeled in enough fine musicians to execute his ambitious arrangements.”
Then, just before the end of the year, Greil Marcus, another esteemed critic known for his academic, cultural approach to popular music, made Krueger’s “NOWThen” and its rollicking leadoff song, “Kenny’s (It’s Always Christmas in This Bar),” the top entry in his monthly “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column for Rolling Stone. The song was inspired by the Gallery Cabaret, 2020 N. Oakley Ave., which Krueger calls “my favorite bar in Chicago — among a lot of really strong contenders,” and in that another aficionado’s choice. Marcus wrote: “Krueger catches the feel, the cadence, of ordinary talk as he jumps the waves in the sound. He’s rushing inside music that never hurries, as if for him time’s running out but the music knows the place never closes.”
“It’s mind-blowing to me,” Krueger says. “It’s hugely validating.”
And Krueger isn’t exactly someone in need of validation, as music is actually his second career.
“My straight gig is I’m a physician,” he says — a neonatologist, actually, at the University of Chicago, where he spent two decades earning a bachelor’s degree followed by an M.D. and a Ph.D. “I was destined to be an academic physician,” Krueger adds matter-of-factly.
He waves off anyone impressed by someone who cares for newborns clinging to life and then goes home to write songs.
“There are a lot of physicians who are musicians,” he says, adding that many are poets as well. “So I don’t think what I do is that uncommon.”
“There are a lot of physicians who are musicians. So I don’t think what I do is that uncommon.”
Rich Krueger (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Krueger cites poet William Carlos Williams, whose straight gig was being a pediatrician, and recalls how Williams’s brother once insisted in a documentary that the two roles aren’t in opposition as “they really do the same thing.”
Krueger points out that a doctor might study someone — the way a person holds an arm or favors a leg — with an eye toward diagnosing a problem. “What a poet does,” he says, “is take the same observation and make it transpersonal and expand on it and let other people experience it.”
And Krueger’s lyrics are like poetry, only the poetry of everyday language. He says some have compared his songwriting style to Paul Simon’s. “A huge compliment,” he says, “but what they meant was I write across the bar line, so the words are sort of conversational.”
“NOWThen” matches old material Krueger’s had in the can from his earlier career in Chicago in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he was first meeting and putting together a group called the Dysfunctionells, with more recent material he’s written since returning to Chicago after a stint working at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and in New Mexico in the 2000s. (Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Krueger actually grew up in Chicago for a while before his parents divorced, then returned to attend college at U. of C., then bounced back again after his stint out west. “It keeps drawing me back,” he says.) “Kenny’s” is one of the new songs, immediately followed by “Girls Go for Arse’oles,” a confessional inspired by his conversations with a couple of girlfriends of guys in the band back in the early days.
“Between sets they’d come up to me as the reasonable person and complain about their boyfriends, that they were being done wrong,” Krueger recalls. “And I did say, ‘Well, the name of the band is the Dysfunctionells. Get it?’”
Krueger says his artistic inspiration comes from people like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman, songwriters who deal in “subjects that were all legitimate and real,” not moon-June-spoon tunes of the lovelorn.
“I can’t really define what a real song is,” he adds, “but you know it when you hear it. So that’s kind of what I try to go for. It’s real.”
Which means it’s also, occasionally, real funny, as in “Kenny’s,” where the bar is so jolly and welcoming every day is Christmas, as well as his actual Christmas song, “It’s That Time Again,” which ends “Life Ain’t That Long” and includes the line: “Charity may begin at home, but always seems to end on Christmas Day.”
“Writing a funny song that’s actually funny is really difficult,” Krueger says. “But there is a long tradition of humor in songs out of Chicago.” He cites folk singers John Prine and Steve Goodman, and how in Chicago’s folk heyday in the ‘70s they knew comedians in Old Town at Second City — a sort of cross-pollination that continues today.
“There’s a lot of crossover with these people,” Krueger says. “They hang out with each other.”
And that really describes Krueger’s artistic life as well. He recalls in his undergrad days he knew future “Urinetown” playwright and composer Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann and future “The Lifespan of a Fact” playwright Jeremy Kareken. “All of these people were friends of mine,” he says. “We all hung out at Jimmy’s” Woodlawn Tap, Hyde Park’s enduring U. of C. watering hole.
All along, Krueger has made friends with the likes of Chicago folk singer Robbie Fulks, who also liked his work — “again, very validating,” he says — and Peter Stampfel, of the legendary New York City folk group the Holy Modal Rounders. (The Dysfuntionells actually backed him in a Rounders reunion show in the ‘90s.) Both play on “NOWThen,” along with various other musicians Krueger has met and bonded with over the years, including Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas.
Paying for the production out of his own pocket, Krueger sometimes recruited them to come record at an Oak Park studio, sometimes sent the material out for remote overdubs. But what he knew was he wanted the finished product to be professionally polished.
“I owed it to the songs,” he says. “I wanted to make a real record.”
That he did, twice, recognized by two of the top rock critics in the business, but just when he seemed set to take his music to the next level he suffered a foot infection last month, complicated by diabetes, which has landed him in a wheelchair.
“It’s not permanently — touch wood,” he says, cradling a Guild guitar he got from ‘60s Chicago folkie Dwain Story, who died last year. He has another round of surgery, he adds, “then hopefully I can start walking again and working and doing all that kind of stuff.”
It’s derailed performing right when interest in his work is one the rise, but he’s hoping to get back onstage with fiddle player Scott Daniel as part of the regular Paper Machete “live magazine” at the Green Mill in Chicago later this month, then resume a third-Saturday-of-the-month residency with the Dysfunctionells at the Gallery Cabaret. A European tour is possible this summer, perhaps with the band — “It depends on the money,” Krueger says — but in any case it’s not going to be like a Rolling Stones tour.
“I don’t think I’m an overnight sensation or anything. It’s just I made these records now,” Krueger says. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.
“I’m not a rock star,” he adds. “I’m just a songwriter.”