Memphis musician, Limes band leader Shawn Cripps dies in road accident

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Memphis musician Shawn Cripps.
Memphis musician Shawn Cripps.

Memphis musician Shawn Cripps — an acclaimed underground artist and leader of rock band Limes — has died.

Cripps spent much of his life working as a truck driver and even recorded albums in the cab of his semi while on the road. He was killed in an accident in Missouri on Sunday morning. He was 55 years old. The news of his death was confirmed on social media by his former wife, Nicole Perugini.

Noted for his collaborations with likeminded, off-kilter Bluff City artists Harlan T. Bobo, Jack Oblivian and Nicholas Ray, Cripps was a staple of the local Goner Records label roster.

“Shawn was super sweet and one of our favorite songwriters. He wrote music like nobody else,” said Zac Ives, co-owner of Goner. “He was a classic kind of Memphis figure. One of those people who mostly stayed in the shadows but did amazing, amazing work.”

Cripps’ former Limes bandmate Quinn Powers recalled him as a genuine rock 'n' roll hero. “To me this guy really was Lou Reed and everyone else was doing a jerky imitation of him every weekend,” Powers wrote in a Facebook remembrance. “I am so sorry for this terrible terrible loss but I am so thankful that I got to call Shawn Cripps my father in rock and roll and ride in his semi-truck with him and play [together].”

Cripps was a restless soul: a nomadic child, a high school dropout, a onetime carny, and longtime long hauler, he spent stretches living on a houseboat on the Riverside Marina. He would channel his varied — sometimes disquieting — personal experiences into music that would cast him as one of the more compellingly offbeat singer-songwriters in Memphis.

Limes, with Shawn Cripps and Harlan T. Bobo, play Gonerfest 8 in 2011.
Limes, with Shawn Cripps and Harlan T. Bobo, play Gonerfest 8 in 2011.

Born in San Diego, Cripps spent his teenage years in Phoenix; in between, he lived an itinerant existence with his single mom and two sisters, moving around Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

"My mom would get tired of a place, pack up the car without much notice and just go," recalled Cripps in 2010 interview with The Commercial Appeal.

Cripps' travels continued after he quit school, as he landed a job through his brother-in-law, driving from town to town working in the carnival business.

He eventually ended up broke and busted in Fresno, California, where began his music career.

"I really loved a lot of the sleaze-rock bands playing down in Los Angeles at the time, where I was spending a lot of time," said Cripps. "But I was mostly in bands so I had a place to go. I would just be couch surfing, or living with these topless dancers."

Rejoining his family, who had resettled in Memphis, Cripps arrived in the Bluff City in 1990. He soon began playing bass and fronting the local grunge-psych outfit Shindig.

The group developed a small following, but the band's run ended abruptly and tragically, after guitarist Francis Casteel was killed in a car crash outside Tunica in 1998.

Cripps soon suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his friend's death. “So I impulsively decided to go to truck driving school," he said. “I thought the best way to recover was through hard work, really long hours, and no music.”

Eventually, just as a way to pass the long nights spent at truck stops and rest areas, Cripps bought a guitar. “It sat in the truck for months and months. Finally, I started getting in the mood, and the first song I wrote was called ‘We Are the Limes.’”

Fueled by his love of Detroit trash-rockers the Gories and copious amounts of caffeine, Cripps began pouring out new songs one after the other.

After a year on the road trucking, Cripps returned to Memphis in 2000 determined to start a band. “I wanted to find the sleaziest, most good-for-nothing people for my band,” he joked. “I already had (Viva L'American Death Ray's) Nic Ray in mind. And then I saw Harlan T. Bobo riding around town on his bike in his cowboy hat, and I said, ‘That guy has got to be in the band.’ I didn't even know if he played music.”

The original version of Limes — featuring fellow songwriters Bobo and Ray, and later Jack Oblivian — began playing around town in 2001. While Ray’s and Bobo's own solo careers would take flight over the next few years, Cripps couldn't quite get his music off the ground — though he did release his debut single, “Goddamn You Honey,” via an Italian label in 2004.

That same year Cripps returned to truck driving to make ends meet. He also continued recording his songs while on the road, quietly releasing them as limited-edition albums, like 2005’s moody workout “Tarantula” and 2006’s gritty song cycle “Blue Blood.”

Cripps would release his first single as Limes in 2004, the first in a run of recordings over the next seven years.
Cripps would release his first single as Limes in 2004, the first in a run of recordings over the next seven years.

If his career ambitions remained limited, the vistas of his music were quickly expanding. Cripps’ songs — bedraggled tales sung in his phlegmy croak — brought to mind a strange hybrid of Leonard Cohen fronting the Meat Puppets.

Cripps’ career finally got a boost when local label Goner Records offered him a chance to go into a proper studio and record. In between long hauls in 2007 and 2008, he worked at Midtown's Rocket Science audio and cut 22 songs. Eventually, Cripps took those tracks and loaded them onto his portable recording system and did overdubs in the familiarity of his truck.

Finally, after flirting with the idea of a double album, Cripps and the label settled on the single-disc version of “Rhinestone River” — a set of narcotized roots-rock shot through with dark humor — which was released by Goner in 2010. The label eventually re-issued Cripps’ earlier albums as well.

Off the back of his Goner efforts, Cripps decided to quit driving trucks — for good, he noted at the time — and begin touring, often in Europe, and usually as part of packages playing with Jack Oblivian and Harlan T. Bobo.

Although Cripps continued recording and playing out in Memphis in recent years, he eventually found himself back on the road driving trucks.

“He would still stop by Goner, usually with a tape of new songs he’d recorded and always some story from his travels,” Ives said. “Shawn always had crazy stories. He made his life into his music. He really was one of a kind.”

Oblivians and Reigning Sound leader Greg Cartwright added, "Shawn was one of the most unique and talented songwriters I have ever heard or known. I believe that his genius will only be more apparent as time passes."

Plans for a memorial are pending.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Shawn Cripps dies: Memphis musician, Limes band leader was 54

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