REO Speedwagon's Kevin Cronin on the band's surprising Ozark cameo
"When the call came in for us to appear in Ozark, my reaction was, 'They’re going to have REO Speedwagon playing on a riverboat in the Lake of the Ozarks?'"
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Ozark season 3.
Ozark, a dark, violent drama about family — both the crime and blood variety — is not the kind of show where you’d expect to hear the light classic rock stylings of REO Speedwagon. But, spoiler alert: REO plays a major role in one Season 3 episode, which also happens to be named after the band's lead singer, Kevin Cronin. In addition to REO's jaunty 1978 hit ‘Time for Me to Fly” being used during a drug cartel kidnapping sequence, the group also makes a cameo, playing a concert at the casino and entering into a money laundering arrangement with Marty (Jason Bateman).
Thanks to their appearance, REO songs "Keep On Loving You," "Can't Fight This Feeling," "Time for Me to Fly," and "Take It On the Run" have all re-entered Billboard's Hot Rock Songs chart. Meanwhile, their 1988 compilation album, The Hits, entered the Top Rock Albums chart at 49.
Cronin, 68, spoke to EW by phone about how his band ended up in the show, what it was like being on set, and also revealed one of the weirdest gigs REO Speedwagon ever played.
You have an entire episode of Ozark named after you (“Kevin Cronin Was Here”) and you and the band perform “Time for Me to Fly” in it. How did it come about?
When the call came in for us to appear in Ozark, my reaction was, “They’re going to have REO Speedwagon playing on a riverboat in the Lake of the Ozarks?” When I have a question, I bring it up at the dinner table. At that time, my [twin] sons were 19 and my daughter was 22. All the energy that came back to me was, “You might want to think about doing this.”
They sent me the script. It shows how my “manager” calls me and asks if I’m willing to launder money through our merchandise company for an extra hundred thousand dollars. And my immediate reaction was, “Wait a minute, all the other characters are fictional, except for us.” I'm strictly nonfiction at this point in my life. You know, I went through some fictional years there in the past! [But] they sent me the first two seasons of the show and I got on the tour bus, got in my bunk and binge-watched. It took me 10 days. I saw both seasons, all the way through, and I was like, I’m ready to go.
In the episode’s opening sequence, “Time for Me to Fly” is used, then it’s on the car radio and Laura Linney’s character Wendy is singing along. Then there’s gun violence. How do you think Ozark meant for the song to be seen?
I think the opening scene is more a literal translation of what the song is about. She's thinking about what her life would be like without [Marty/Jason Bateman]. But at the end of the episode, Marty gets dragged out of our concert and you don't know what happens to him until the next episode, where he's in Mexico. So it was literally time for him to fly. Who knows what came first, the chicken or the egg there. But it certainly did come together.
The band is actually mentioned two episodes before you appear. A dentist tells Wendy he wants REO to plays a dental convention on the Missouri Belle riverboat casino. He refers to the band as “The Wagon,” when fans actually call you REO. Does anyone call you The Wagon?
No. Had I seen [that script]… But that was episode one. For our episode, they had me on stage delivering a couple of lines. The first was a “Hey, everybody, how you doing?” thing. I told the writer, “You know, that’s not what I would normally say.” What I’ve been saying for I don't know how many years is, “Hey Cincinnati, check yourselves out.” And then our light guy puts the spots on the audience. So we wrote that into the script. But the whole thing about the dentists, that happened in episode one. In our episode, my line is, “Hey, are there any dentists in the crowd tonight?" So if the viewer remembers that this is a dental convention, that line is kind of funny. In the original script there was a shot of a banner that has a big REO Speedwagon logo and says "Welcome to the Missouri Dental Association Convention." Well, that got dropped. So my dental line kinda bombed.
Have you ever played a dental convention or equally oddball gig?
It must have been 1989 after [late guitarist/songwriter] Gary Richrath and I parted ways and the band was at kind of a low point. We did a tour of Mexico. We pull up to the last gig of the tour and there on the marquee, in English, it says, “REO Speedwagon plus ventriloquist act.” We go into the venue, and not only were we sharing the bill, but we were sharing the dressing room with the ventriloquist act.… We're all sitting there going, “God, this is bulls—t. What are we doing here?” I swear to you, all of a sudden from behind one of our road cases pops the ventriloquist’s dummy. He goes, [Spanish accent] “This is bulls–t. This is bulls–t."
Tell me about being on set to film your scene.
We were all psyched up. We wanted to see the Blue Cat [Lodge; the set is a shuttered bar on Lake Allatoona] and the strip club, Lickety Splitz. We thought it was all going to be right next to each other, like on the show. Well, it turns out that the casino is on one lake and the Blue Cat on another. Because I had a couple lines, they gave me the script, and it didn't dawn on me at first, but then I noticed the name of the episode was “Kevin Cronin Was Here.” I thought that was just a working title. Or maybe it was a little thing to make me feel at home? I didn't know what to make of it. Then when our family sat down to watch Season 3 and I saw they actually kept that name for the episode, it was a kick. I gotta tell ya, I see the name REO Speedwagon all the time, but I don't often see my own name there. It was kind of shocking in a way. I kind of operate under the brand name of REO Speedwagon. But my friend, Sammy Hagar, his brand name is Sammy Hagar. Now I kind of see how it feels when your own name is up there. It's a different feeling, because I'm not used to it. It was a little unsettling; exciting but new.
REO Speedwagon is back on the Billboard charts for songs that are many decades old. Who do you think is listening: old fans who were reminded of REO by the show, or young listeners just discovering the band?
I think it's a combination of both. It’s an example of the power of television. Hearing “Time for Me to Fly” in that show, there may well be people who heard that song for the first time and went, “Oh, that's cool. I kind of want to hear some more about that.” To a lesser extent perhaps, [it’s like] when Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” got played on the Sopranos’ final episode and that just breathed new life into that song.
When we play “Time for Me to Fly” in concert, it's always one of those songs that gets a big response. It's one of my favorite moments, because when I play those opening guitar chords, everybody in the place stands, everybody's got their lighters or cell phones up. I remember where I was when I wrote that song. It was not a high point of my life. I was in a tough position. When you write a song, you have no idea the journey that song may or may not take you on. “Time for Me to Fly” has taken me on an amazing musical journey that started when I wrote it in 1970. Here it is, 50 years later, and it's still out there appealing to people; bringing up emotions, making people smile. It's been a pretty amazing journey. And the journey continues.