An Interview with REO Speedwagon vocalist Kevin Cronin: A Speedwagon Summer

Since forming in 1967, kings of classic rock REO Speedwagon have added a few clicks to their tour bus’ odometer bringing their timeless hits (that I certainly don’t need to list here) to local venues, thrilling countless moms just like yours along the way. Recently, vocalist Kevin Cronin and I spoke about everything from whales, to touring, to insecurity, and even a snake in the grass, probably all coiled up and hissing. There’s no shortage of chances to catch the band live this summer, either on their own or with tourmates Chicago. Go to a show. Bring your mom and belt it out with Cronin like your lives depend on it. You know you want to and, oh, I know you both can! You can thank me later.

Kevin Cronin: Hi. I’m sorry to keep you waiting! Our house is under construction and has been for almost two years now. Somehow we just can’t seem to finish. My phone just rang, the doorbell rang, one of the construction workers found a six-foot snake underneath the new deck, and the thing went off to tell me my coffee was ready. It’s so much easier being on tour, I can tell you! It used to be we went on the road and got all partied out and we’d come home to recover. Now, it’s like I go on the road to get some rest. A house under construction is enough to drive you out of your mind.

I don’t mind waiting. It gave me some time to look at the notes you post on your website.

Uh oh.

No, no. I wanted to ask about some of them. In particular, your Mother’s Day post. I know it was a while ago, but you said some touching things about your mom and about your wife.

I started out playing music when I was really young and I was the only child until I was seven years old, so I had a real strong support network for music in general. My mom was always very supportive of music. I think if she could have waved a magic wand she would have been a Broadway musical comedy actress. That’s kind of where her love is. So when I showed an interest in music she was very supportive and always has been.

As a touring musician with three children at home, my wife, Lisa, is basically a single mom for half the year because we spend right around half the year on the road. It’s not like I’m home for six months then gone for six months, it kind of gets sprinkled out over the whole year so it’s a demanding lifestyle to try to balance a career as a recording, touring musician, and also wanting to have a family. It’s not that easy to do. You don’t really hear that many success stories when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll families. So many of the kids suffer and marriages break up and it’s fraught with temptation and just the schedule itself is really difficult.

Lisa is kind of the fulcrum of the whole thing. I leave and she has to carry on here. It’s primarily her thing to harvest the good parts of what I do and try to filter out some of the things that end up causing kids to have a tough time adjusting. She’s really done a great job of it. Holly, Josh, and Shane—you wouldn’t call them rock ‘n’ roll kids. You would call them just good kids who go to school and do their thing and play sports and belong to extracurricular activities and get good grades and have good friends. I think that’s pretty rare. There’s a lot of kids who get caught up in the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing and they think they’re rock ‘n’ roll kids. That’s not what I ever wanted for my kids.

So I really appreciate her. Mother’s Day is when I get an opportunity to express it and tell the world that I appreciate both my mom and to a far greater degree at this point, my wife. Also, the fact is, half of REO’s fans are women and a good amount of them are moms. So I appreciate moms in general. Let’s face it, our audience is a wide swath somewhere right in the mom years, 30 to 50 years old, so I appreciate when I look around my house and my neighborhood and see women who are either working moms or stay-at-home moms, it’s a lot of stress and a lot of effort to do it right.

Part of what REO Speedwagon does is we provide moms all over the country with an opportunity to go, “You know what? Let’s get a babysitter tonight. We’re going to go out and put on our best rock ‘n’ roll clothes and we’re gonna see REO. We’re going to forget about our jobs and our kids and our responsibilities and we’re gonna hear some music that makes us feel good.” We feel like we provide moms with that little escape valve from everyday life as well. We appreciate them. And I see them. When I look out from the stage, there’s a whole lot of women on girls’ night out. You’ll see groups of five or six women in their 30s and 40s and that’s exactly what they’ve done. Sometimes they bring their husbands, sometimes they don’t.

And that’s certainly not trivial. I know after I see a good show, it keeps me going for a while. You are doing a service to motherhood, thank you very much.

(Laughs) Well, you know what, it’s funny because I don’t remember exactly when it was but there was some point in the past years when I remember just having this… You know how we all go through moments of insecurity and I remember this one day when I was just in that mode and feeling vulnerable. I don’t remember where I was but I just remember the feeling was kind of just thinking, “Wow, there’s people who at this point in their lives have been doctors or schoolteachers or just occupations that really have an impact. Scientists discovering new things! And here I am, a frickin’ singer in a rock band.”

I was just feeling kind of like, “Oh boy. What have I contributed to the world? How have I made the world a better place?” And as I was going through the emotions, that same thing kind of occurred to me. I thought, “Well, wait a minute. If it wasn’t for us all of these hardworking people that make the world go round, we kind of make their lives more fun. Without us they’d be really bored and probably wouldn’t do as good a job.” So, by extension, that’s how we help the world, by making the world a little bit more fun. Then I felt a little bit better.

Oh, sure! Even when a song comes on the radio and you’re able to connect immediately with it and have it take you somewhere else for a few minutes, that’s priceless. That’s very important.

Yeah, yeah. Thank you!

You’re welcome. We all feel insecure in our own ways.

Of course we do.

Can you speak about REO Speedwagon’s decision to cancel a SeaWorld performance?

Yeah, we played at SeaWorld one or two times in the past, once that I remember. It was a nice outdoor gig. You wouldn’t know you were at SeaWorld; it was just like any other outdoor venue. They’d always fill it up; again, that’s our demographic, for lack of a better term. I never really thought too much about it, until Blackfish came out. I have a grown son and he turned me onto it. There are just so many things in life that you see and accept and never really think, “Wow, that giant whale is stuck in that little tub. And how did it get there? How was it captured? How did it get out there to let people ride on its back?” You kind of don’t think of it.

After I watched that movie I felt like an idiot! SeaWorld came at us with a lot of positive SeaWorld stuff, and they do a lot of good stuff for exploration and the health of sea animals of all sorts. I don’t have a problem with them in general, but in this case, as far as the way they treat whales, that’s just a different thing. You remember the scene that killed everybody where they take the baby whale away because it’s affecting the mother—

Oh yeah, yeah. God. Devastating.

And the mother just screams! And talk about Mother’s Day! OK, I wear shoes, I eat a hamburger, obviously there’s a food chain and we’re at the top of it and a cow is not, but yet you can’t compare a cow to a whale. There’s different levels of intelligence and family connection. These whales…it’s just not right. So after seeing that movie the boycott was on.

I will tell you this, we’re all friends and we travel together and live together and have a huge crew and we’re all brothers but in any brotherhood there’s going to be dissent. It wasn’t like everybody in the band just said, “Oh yeah, let’s cancel that gig.” It took some doing and we ended up canceling the show, which was a good thing. I couldn’t possibly help SeaWorld prosper. A statement needs to be made to get people’s attention that if SeaWorld is going to have whales they need to have another way. You know, buy an entire bay someplace or whatever. Or just cut the whales out!

Anyway, the cruelty just seemed like something that I personally couldn’t support. When all was said and done the majority of the guys agreed. I’ll tell ya, canceling a show is so counterintuitive for a musician. From the time I was in seventh grade playing for little block parties it was like, “Cancel a show? I can’t cancel a show!”

But it’s scheduled!

Yeah, exactly! People are going to come here and miss it! Even though we’re professionals now and we do our thing on a grand scale, people forget that I’m doing the same thing now as I was when I was 12 years old. It’s on a different level all the way around. It’s been a roller coaster ride, obviously, but I’m doing the same thing I was doing back then. So my feelings are really connected. There’s less of a disconnect with my 12-year-old self and my 62-year-old self than there is with most people. Most people aren’t doing the same thing now that they were doing when they were 12. I feel very fortunate because it keeps me youthful and thinking young. As a result I feel there is a fountain of youth and it’s rock ‘n’ roll music for me.

That leads nicely into my last question. So many bands from the ’70s and ’80s are still going strong. What keeps REO’s music youthful and appealing after all this time?

It’s a really good question. I know for us, right around 1990, right when the whole Seattle scene exploded with Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam, all those bands that came out and blew everybody out of the water—and, honestly, I thought they were great—the “classic rock” bands as we’re called today, no one knew what to make of it. A lot of bands disbanded. Well, we never did. We kept playing. And it got ugly there for a while. We were touring in South America, having hard times getting gigs in the States. For REO Speedwagon, that was quite a jolt to the system but we continued.

Right around 1995, we had this idea, “Well, OK, we can’t headline arenas anymore by ourselves. What if we take us and somebody else?” So we had to be co-headliners and booked a tour with Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benatar. All of a sudden we were filling up the venues again. Since then that’s kind of been the way everybody operates. You never buy a ticket to see one band. It’s always REO and Styx, or Styx and Boston, or Journey and Steve Miller, whatever it happens to be. REO and Chicago this year. It’s a great way for people to get more value. They can see two of their favorite bands. It’s just a matter of being wise about trying to figure out who to tour with, who you get along with, whose music each other’s fans would like. Maybe some people just came to see Styx but they see us and say, “Oh wow, we like those guys too!” It’s revitalized things.

I think the other thing, Andrea, is that classic rock radio has kept our music in people’s ears and the bottom line of the whole thing is that the kind of songs we write are kind of like folk songs. I look at them as just electrified folk songs. All my songs I write on acoustic guitar then I bring them to the band and they crank it up. Essentially, they’re like folk or country songs. People relate to them and there are some artists that really love to challenge the listener, who look to push the boundaries and really break new ground and challenge traditions. That’s a great thing. We need artists like that in the world.

But that’s never what REO Speedwagon was. Our music is a little more palatable, and not by design. I just write the kind of songs that I write and let the chips fall where they may. Our music seems to stick to people’s ribs a little bit more. There’s room for all kinds of music in the world. So here we are today and people are still paying to see us and we’re still playing a high-level concert. Our thing is, when you come to see us, we want to exceed your expectations and that’s what we hear we’re still doing. As long as we are, we’ll stay on the road.

REO Speedwagon will be performing solo at the Bergen PAC June 18, then with Chicago at the PNC Bank Arts Center Aug. 16, Nikon At Jones Beach Theater Aug. 17, Saratoga Performing Arts Center Aug. 19 and the Borgata Events Center Aug. 22. For more information, go to