At home with Sheryl Crow, a widely beloved, and wildly underappreciated, rock star
Sheryl Crow and I are sipping mugs of green tea in the living room of her elegant home on a sprawling Nashville property, not far from Music Row. A gigantic Renaissance-style painting of a biblical scene towers majestically over the sofa; a piano sits under a vintage sign reading MASSAGE, and art books are stacked carefully on the coffee table (photographer Kelly Klein’s “Horse,” one by realist painter Andrew Wyeth). The lush woods enveloping the property peek through the church-like lancet windows.
The beauty of the many tastefully rusted mirrors and antique candelabras feels almost overwhelming. And yet, the tea pulls me back and away: to that time, 20 years ago, when Prince covered her bongo-flecked hit “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” making it slap anew — changing the lyric “I’ve been living on coffee and nicotine” to a less filmic but surely more healthful “compliments and herbal tea.”
I mention this, to Crow’s amusement. “I actually dreamt about Prince the other night,” she says in her serene Southern accent — she left her native Missouri for L.A., originally, at 24 — and recalls the time in the late ‘90s when he invited her to his home-studio complex, Paisley Park, to hang. They tracked vocals and harmonica for his metaphysical funk jam, “Baby Knows,” before taking over the stage at First Avenue.
“It felt like two days in an alternative universe that revolved around being inspired and musical,” she says, with a tinge of awe. That year, Crow and Prince met up at the Lilith Fair tour, where they dueted “Everyday”: she in a Bowie T, he in violet, their small frames huddled around a single mic. In her dream they were excitedly preparing to play together again.
At 57, Crow’s life has been filled with connections like this — and her upcoming record, the Americana-leaning “Threads,” is all about celebrating them. Like a musical memoir tracing her most fantastical rock ‘n’ roll encounters, the 17-track LP of collaborations features over two dozen guests whom Crow has met along her journey from Hollywood backup singer to nine-time Grammy winner. They include lifelong heroes such as Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, as well as younger musicians like Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile, whom Crow believes will carry their torch. Crow is calling “Threads” her final album, though she has no plans to stop making music, and she’ll continue to release of-the-moment singles as she pleases.
From the don’t-look-back jewels of 1993’s “Tuesday Night Music Club” onward, Crow fused soul-journeying ‘60s idealism with immaculate ‘70s songcraft to become a ‘90s Lilith Fair icon. Her poppy alt-country takes in the slick swagger of Jagger/Richards in the same breath as the gleaming emotional chaos of Buckingham/Nicks, all to narrate the defiant perspective of a woman adventurer, in pursuit of herself. In her earliest songs, Crow stares at the desert sky and asks big questions; finds comfort in her “calling” if not in romance; feels “like a stranger” in her own life.
The mega-hits on which she made her name — “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy” — were only deceptively cheery, always undercut with a darkness, an irreverence, an existential edge; sung with a virtuosic tear-in-my-beer ache that could make bikers cry. The lyric “All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die” was adapted from a very Gen X poem by Wyn Cooper. “Soak Up the Sun” opens on a line about Crow’s “friend the communist,” while its central message — she is going to bask in the sun because “it’s still free” — is slyly anti-consumerist. And the quiet-loud alt-rock reach of “If It Makes You Happy” — with its tale of leaving home, weed and Coltrane, scraping mold off of bread — all leads to one question: “Why the hell are you so sad?”
A magnetic-poetry set of Crow’s lyrics would include “intellectualism,” “acid” and “The Clash.” And yet, these words are so emotionally honest and singable and ingrained in the pop consciousness that it sometimes feels like she invented karaoke. “I love the juxtaposition of pointing out the absurd or the imperfect,” Crow tells me, sitting cross-legged in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, her blond hair in a low ponytail, “and making it feel buoyant.”
It’s a wonder Crow is not widely considered a rock hero already. Her career has contained the kind of wild multitudes that are more often afforded to men. Maybe Crow — a multi-instrumentalist as well as a singer-songwriter — was just radically out of time: Embraced by her classic-rock forebears, with few obvious peers, and now beloved across the spectrum of millennial pop and rock. Kacey Musgraves recorded her sublime, Grammy-winning “Golden Hour” at Crow’s home studio. The Americana supergroup Highwomen, with Carlile and Morris, enlisted her to sing on their titular song — a gender-swapped rewrite of an outlaw classic.
A seemingly endless string of indie “If It Makes You Happy” covers has emerged of late, including versions by the esteemed singer-songwriters Sharon Van Etten and Phoebe Bridgers, not to mention punk heroes Screaming Females. Haim and Lorde teamed up on stage in 2013 to cover Crow’s early single “Strong Enough,” and last year Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan covered the same song with Katie Crutchfield, of Waxahatchee. Jordan, now 20, often performed “Strong Enough” at a local coffee shop in high school. When I suggest that some quality of Crow’s songbook lends itself to duets among young women, Jordan interjects: “Sisterhood!”
In 2015, the Seattle DIY musician Robin Edwards, a.k.a. Lisa Prank, co-edited a fanzine called Summer of Sheryl, which situated Crow in a punk-rock context. “I reread her lyrics obsessively and thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Edwards. “Sheryl didn’t fit in with the cool kids of the ‘90s, and she was writing lyrics that are pretty outwardly subversive, and they snuck onto commercial radio.” For Edwards, the wrenching levity of Crow’s 1998 single “My Favorite Mistake” is especially devastating. “It describes such a complex, specific relationship, where you know it’s bad for you, but you keep doing it,” she says. “The way she articulates that — ‘Your friends act sorry for me / They watch you pretend to adore me’ — is so visceral and brutal.”
“The people who inspired me were truth-tellers”
Crow and her family are still salty-haired upon returning from a vacation to Florida, before third and sixth grades start up. Sitting in her living room, we are occasionally visited by one of her two sons, who hoverboards in to inquire sweetly about his backpack, or pet turtle, or apple juice.
She was born in Kennett, Mo., the third of four children of a piano teacher and a lawyer-trumpetist, who had a swing band together. A former Girl Scout, Crow worked as an elementary school music teacher in Fenton, Mo., before pursuing an artistic career in earnest. After calling L.A. home base for 20 years, she moved to Tennessee in 2006 to be nearer to her parents, not long after a diagnosis with breast cancer, which she beat. She adopted Wyatt and Levi in 2007 and 2010. (Crow has never married, though in the early 2000s she was engaged to Lance Armstrong.)
One of Crow’s earliest gigs in L.A. was as a backup singer for Michael Jackson, on his Bad tour — now a focal point of the child abuse allegations against Jackson. On her first record’s “The Na-Na Song,” Crow openly called out the harassment she experienced on that tour: “Clarence Thomas organ grinder, Frank DiLeo’s dong / Maybe if I’d let him, I’d have had a hit song,” referencing the conservative Supreme Court justice (accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill in 1991) on the one hand, and Jackson’s manager, DiLeo, on the other. Another “Tuesday” song, “What I Can Do for You,” so directly and uncomfortably confronts themes of sexual harassment and abuse of power that it sounds like a modern #MeToo anthem.
“I did get some blowback, and for a moment, a legal situation,” Crow says. (Crow told Billboard that DiLeo filed a lawsuit against her, but died not long thereafter, in 2011). “But a legal situation couldn’t hold a candle to what I went through. I’m a strong person, and I know how to defend myself, but I was certainly threatened to never have a career. The people who inspired me, like Bob Dylan, were truth-tellers. You are at risk when you write the truth. But someone has to do it.”
I ask her about some of her more delightfully shocking lyrical Easter eggs. What about, for example, that bit from 1996’s “Maybe Angels,” about having “witnesses to what the government denies”? “I’m a believer in aliens,” she says simply, clutching a throw pillow depicting a mallard duck. I point to another unshakable line — “I’ve been swimming in a sea of anarchy,” from “Everyday Is a Winding Road” — and Crow tells me the song was inspired by a very good musician friend, who ultimately hung himself in a park. He had a newborn named Sunday, which gnawed at her: “He’s got a daughter he calls Easter,” Crow sings. “She was born on a Tuesday night.”
“There was a time when I hung out with conspiracy theorists and Bukowski-esque types who were staring at the bottom of the bottle — people who I thought challenged my intellect,” Crow explains. “We prided ourselves on being anarchist. When this guy killed himself, it all seemed so absurd: to mask living as having meaning because you’re intelligent. It brought everything to a screeching halt. My way of looking at life changed.”
Though she’d originally planned to make her self-titled masterpiece with Bill Bottrell, who produced “Tuesday Night Music Club,” he left amid acrimony over the previous record. Crow ultimately self-produced the album at a time, she said, “when nobody would let a woman produce their own record, when it would be [viewed as] crazy to waste money on that.” She asked her friend Jeff Trott to come to New Orleans to write with her, and the two still work together. Describing their shared sensibility, Trott tells me, “We’re both optimists, but with a strong sense of reality.”
Crow recorded “Threads,” her first album for country powerhouse Big Machine Records, at the light-filled barn-cum-studio she built on her wooded property. I ask to see it, and Crow gives me a ride on her rugged four-wheel Ranger UTV, down a gravel road, pointing out a pack of wild turkeys along the way. The studio is on the top floor of the barn; a rustic saloon sits below.
Standing near the bar, Crow pops open an adjacent swinging door, and suddenly a guest sticks his head in: Her horse Bobbie Joe. The studio-saloon is attached to the stable where Crow’s five horses live (she’s had as many as 22). Crow says the horses — plus a cat, a puppy, two turtles, the turkeys — help keep her young sons from being subsumed by technology. “It seems like these devices could contribute to the demise of humanity,” she says with sage-like calm. “They’ve created such a chasm between people and emotion. And emotion is the gateway to enlightenment.”
The walls of Crow’s barn-studio are lined with her some 36 guitars, and just outside the door, an image of Crow’s face looks up from a photorealistic welcome-mat above the phrase “Keep America Growing” — a souvenir from a Neil Young Farm Aid benefit. Crow has herself hosted charity events at her barn, and the likes of Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban have worked here. While Musgraves and her band were recording “Golden Hour,” one of Crow’s sons insisted they do something about the skunk that had taken up residence near the barn (it was the earthy scent of pot).
The warmly recorded “Threads” is heavy on what could be called protest songs. “I have small kids, and I take some of what’s happening in the world, where truth is under total attack, as a personal affront,” she says. “My venting mechanism is music.”
For “Threads,” Crow re-recorded her stunning antiwar country ballad “Redemption Day” to incorporate posthumous vocals from Johnny Cash, who once covered it. She also collaborates with none other than Public Enemy leader Chuck D on the soulful “Story of Everything,” calling out congressmen who “don’t show up to work except to give themselves a raise.” The Nicks-featuring “Prove You Wrong,” meanwhile, is pure resilience: “The spirit of the song is the spirit of what’s happening now, where people are talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the music business, or a woman in the world,” Crow says. “And if anyone thinks that I can’t, let me just show you that I can.”
Crow and I arrive at the subject of authenticity, and particularly women’s authenticity and why it is still so often doubted. “It’s shocking, and it’s something we have to figure out with female political candidates too,” she reasons. “Why is it that when you have an opinion and speak your truth emphatically, it’s unappealing? A man can say the same thing as a woman, and a woman is ‘shrill’ or ‘overbearing.’” It gives “Prove You Wrong” another layer, another thread. “I’ve had to fight to be treated as an equal,” Crow continues. “That seeped into my perspective.
“I’m not in the competitive world of pop radio anymore, but I feel more passionate about writing now than I did back then,” Crow adds with a decisive resolve, just before gathering her kids for a lunch with their grandma and pops. “Because I’m older, and I have a deeper stake in the game as far as what happens on this planet. When you’re young, you look at things as being extremely black and white. I’m at a point where I’m looking at the whole picture.”
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