By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Feb 22, 2015 at 9:08 AM Photography: Royal Brevvaxling

What started out as a conversation about chili turned into one about life. And death. And Milwaukee and Black Sabbath and babysitter crushes and bird watching and socks that smelled like smoke.

This is what happens when you get Tom Crawford talking. Crawford – veteran station manager for WMSE – is as versed in telling his own stories as he is telling the tales behind the music.

But, before launching into Crawford’s engaging chronicles, let’s return to the original intention and chat about chili.

The 13th annual Rockabilly Chili – which is a fundraiser for WMSE that pits more than 50 local restaurants, cafes and caterers against each other – takes place on Sunday, March 1 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the MSOE Kern Center, 1245 N. Broadway.

This year, the bluegrass band Split Lip Rayfield will travel from Wichita, Kan. to perform. The three-piece played the WMSE Backyard BBQ last year.

Advance tickets are $12 and include four chili samples. Children 10 years or younger are free. You can get tickets at the door or here.

And now, back to Crawford. In your opinion, what’s the key to a winning bowl of chili?

Tom Crawford: Insanely hot, but with flavor. It’s gotta have a good burn.

OMC: How has the Rockabilly Chili event evolved over the years?

TC: Initially, we wanted it to be a sanctioned event of the International Chili Society (ICS) but we found out that ICS events can’t also be fundraisers, so we did it on our own. It started out at Lakefront Brewery, with 10 teams making chili live, in real time.

OMC: Do you make chili?

TC: I do, but it varies what kind. I think there’s enough variety in chili recipes that you could eat a different one every day from the classic beef and kidney bean chili – I love that, it’s so "mom" – to the more adventuresome chilis.

OMC: When did you start working at WMSE?

TC: I’ve been at the radio station since January 1984. I worked overnights – midnight to 3 a.m. and later from midnight to 6 a.m. I became the station manger in 1994.

OMC: What do you do as station manager?

TC: I oversee the operation. Manage the volunteers, the DJs and the programming. I work in conjunction with the development of underwriting and the music department. It’s not top-down here, it’s a collective consciousness, very collaborative.

OMC: Could you work at a mainstream radio station?

TC: I could talk about that for hours, but I’ll just say no, I don't think I could work for the devil.

OMC: Do you see yourself retiring from WMSE?

TC: Retiring? I don’t think about that. I love what I do and I consider myself really lucky to have this job. I guess I’d be the minister of Canada, if I could, or I’d play the bad guy in the next Aliens movie, but otherwise I’ll just keep showing up to work here.

OMC: How many shows do you host on air these days? 

TC: Sundays I host Frontier Radio Theater – radio programs from the '30s, '40s and '50s – from 8 to 9 a.m. Mondays from 3 to 6 p.m. I host the Rock Ride and Thursdays I host Radio Drill Time from 6 to 9 p.m.

OMC: So you still love being on air?

TC: Absolutely. It’s instantaneously ego gratifying, but it’s more than that. It becomes education. There is that sub-group of humanity who loves indifference to popular culture and prefers to drill down and find what’s inside the rock rather than walk on top of it.

OMC: You’ve lived in Milwaukee your entire life, right?

TC: Yeah, I’m a terminal Milwaukeean, an urban agoraphobe. I get about 20 miles outside of Milwaukee and I get squirrelly. I might make it to Waukesha but then I think, ‘this is not good’ and I gotta drive back.

OMC: What side of town did you grow up on?

TC: I was born and raised on the North Side. My parents were so cute, they were young and in love and they ran a rooming house on 27th Street – between Vine and Lisbon – to offset their house payment. There were four sleeping rooms and a bathroom upstairs that they rented out. It was pretty wild, even back then. In 1967, 1968, the world was coming apart. Our greatest leaders had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was going on and there were protests all over the world. Even as an 8-year-old kid I was like, "Mom, what’s going on?"

Eventually, we moved to Bay View and I’ve been there ever since, with the exception of a short time when I toured the East Side as a cool kid.

OMC: When and how did you fall in love with music?

TC: My mother was always playing music around the house. She was the first kid in her family born in America. Her parents emigrated here from Sweden and her three older sisters were all born there. She was born in the Dust Bowl in 1927 and she was all that: Swedish, Lutheran, conservative. She was a hipster in the late '40s and '50s. She wore the shoes, knew all the bands. She was in love with Frank Sinatra and played records on her 78 and the radio was always on, rocking torch and big band.

But rock ’n’ roll to her was the devil so I didn’t know it until I was in kindergarten. It’s the only moment from kindergarten I remember, but it changed my life. A girl, I think her name was Lisa, brought in the single "I'm Henry the VIII, I Am" by Herman’s Hermits and the teacher played it at the end of the day and it was like fireworks went off. The moment the song was over I jumped off my mat and said, "Play it again, play it again!"

I went home and it was all I could talk about and my mom, although she disagreed, let it go. She decided she was going to let her kids grow; she allowed us to happen. So my brother and I got really into Top 40 radio on WOKY and the highpoint of our lives was every December 31st, sitting in our pajamas and listening to the top 100 and waiting for the top five, the top song, of the year and then arguing about whether it was good or stupid. Then we’d get the (winning) single out and play it a million times.

OMC: Who else introduced you to music?

TC: We got this crazy babysitter who showed up in go-go boots and mini skirts and she brings The Animals and The Who and Donovan and plays them on our little stereo and she wouldn’t let us play our Beatles records. She’d say, "The Beatles are dumb, this is real music." She played old Rolling Stones records for us and it was the first time I heard covers of songs and it opened up a different world for me.

I became enamored with her – it was partly hormonal – but it was also her records. This crazy girl with ratted hair was playing all of this wild music. She paved the way for me and my brother to really get into music. Then my brother started bringing home Cream and Melody Maker magazine and I started reading as much as I could about musicians and bands.

Then, in sixth grade, another pivotal thing happened. I was at my friend Randy’s house and it was my birthday and I got Steppenwolf and Hendrix’s "Rainbow Bridge." We were in Randy’s room listening to the records and his brother walks in with his friend – you know the kid who’s in 8th grade but already has a mustache and can drive a car – and they pull us into (the big brother’s) room which had a black light and beads and the whole thing and they put on Black Sabbath and my life changed completely. It was like a horror movie, a nightmare. Even the cover scared the sh-t out of me. I felt like I was unfolding sonically. But from that point on, all I did was save my money to buy records.

OMC: Where did you buy your records?

TC: Rushmore opened in early '70s. And there was another crazy record / head shop on Mitchell Street called Desublimation. I also went to 1812 Overture and later, in the mid-'70s, Peaches came to town.

OMC: Where do you like to see live music?

TC: I have so many fond memories of the Riverside. I grew up there. A lot of people don’t remember it was a movie theater first. I love Cactus Club, especially the old days when you'd go home and your socks smelled like smoke. Shank Hall has amazing sound and is a kick-ass place to see a show. I also love the mom-and-pop-ism of Linneman’s. I think it should be required of every Milwaukeean to see a show there, to watch Jim (Linneman) jump in the closet and mix the band.

One night, years ago, I saw Sonic Youth and then I went to Onopa and caught A Silver Mount Zion and after, I was levitated, I was floating down Center Street at 1:30 in the morning back to my car. I will never forget that. Tell me good things don’t happen here and I will kick you in the balls.

OMC: What kind of music do you listen to the most these days?

TC: It depends on the day. The Internet has made my life a wormhole musically. I get on a jag and I gotta get everything. It burgeons into this madness sometimes – makes me a wreck.

OMC: Have you played in bands?

TC: In the heyday of punk I tried to play guitar, that was a train wreck, so I bought drums and my drum teacher said I should play the bass. Then I got into synthesizers in the late 70s and in the 80s I bought a drum machine. I hooked up with a couple of guys and we were the band that never happened – did a ton of covers and a bunch of original stuff but never gave it the gas it needed.

I played with basement dweller and I never took it seriously but I played all the time for many, many years. I was also in an Industrial band – when Industrial music was really popular – called Infrastructure. At the turn of the century, I hooked up with some guys who would later start Juniper Tar. We opened for Arcade Fire at Stonefly, it might have been Onopa at the time.

But then my father got very sick and between taking care of him and work, I just didn’t have the time any more.

OMC: Did your father pass away?

TC: He did, in 2006.

OMC: Losing a parent really changes you, doesn’t it?

TC: It does. Here’s a story: In 2002, I was living with someone and engaged and then one day, it all fell apart. I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. She realized it wasn't what she wanted. So I thought about moving home with my parents. And then I decided not to move home. But my mom encouraged me to move home, she really wanted me to, and so, in 2002, I moved home.

Within three months of moving back, my mother was killed in a car accident. It changed everything and I had to learn that there are things that you have no power over, that we don't get to always make decisions, that some things just happen.

OMC: What’s something about you a lot of people don’t know?

TC: I’m a bird watcher. I drive all over the state to look at birds. I belong to a listserv, have an app on my phone and my binoculars in my car at all times. It brings me peace. It’s the needle in a haystack thing: always looking for something that few people see.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.