Sheryl Crow—and her music—find a Home in the country

By Russell Hall

Call it a slight turn, not a giant leap. That’s how Sheryl Crow assesses her nimble move into mainstream country music. She’s quick to point out that even “All I Wanna Do”—the Grammy-winning megahit that vaulted her into the limelight 20 years ago—featured a country staple: pedal steel from beginning to end. “I don’t think it’s that big a switch,” she says. “I’ve been doing guitar pulls for years and writing conventional songs with guitar solos. Today’s country format is where you hear the kind of music I’ve always made.”

Crow’s country roots run deep. Growing up in Kennett, Mo.—a four-hour drive from her current home outside Nashville—she experienced the full gamut of rural Southern life. She was also blessed with parents who performed in swing orchestras and encouraged Crow to explore music at an early age. “The community was all farmland and church and school and a town square,” she recalls. “That’s the kind of life I wanted to give my own kids. Clearly I’m also a girl who loves to rock—I fell hard for the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan—but my favorite rockers had close ties to country music.”

Crow may have loved small-town life, but she nurtured big ambitions. Graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in piano and voice, she worked as a music teacher for two years before heading to L.A., determined to make her mark as a recording artist. A lengthy period of peripheral work ensued—including a two-year stint as Michael Jackson’s backup singer. But in 1993 she broke through with Tuesday Night Music Club, her debut album. Industry awards—including the Grammy for Best New Artist—followed, and Crow became one of music’s leading singer-songwriters. In the past two decades, she’s scored nine Grammy wins and sold more than 50 million albums worldwide.

In 2006 a health scare prompted Crow to take stock. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent successful treatment and soon afterward adopted the first of her two sons. Another change came that year when she moved to Nashville. She now resides on a 50-acre horse farm on the outskirts of the city. “I was kind of a lost soul,” she says. “I realized that during 25 years of touring and making records, I had never put down roots anywhere. I felt it was time to reassess my life, to see what was missing.”

Crow’s new album, Feels Like Home, places her firmly at the center of the Nashville songwriting community. The spark for the record was kindled three years ago, when Crow joined Loretta Lynn and Miranda Lambert for a performance of Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” at the CMA Awards. Country vets like Brad Paisley and Vince Gill quickly set about convincing her that the country format was where she belonged. “There was a huge response after I sang with Loretta,” she says.

As with her previous two albums, Crow recorded the bulk of Feels Like Home in a barn-turned-studio on her farm. Struggling at first with the production, she turned to Gill for advice. He in turn put her in touch with Justin Niebank, a noted producer-engineer. Niebank’s co-production work proved integral to the project’s success. “I was a bit lost with the numbers charts,” Crow explains. “It wasn’t the way I was used to working. I told Vince what I know best is to go in with an engineer and talk about how we want things to sound and feel, and then go at that together. I give Justin total credit for leading the way. He even chose the musicians.”

High points include “Shotgun,” a brawny country rocker fueled by a twangy guitar riff; “We Oughta Be Drinkin’” a slinky ballad that would have fit snugly onto a Bobbie Gentry LP; and “Waterproof Mascara,” a nicely orchestrated anthem every unmarried mother can relate to. Most of the material was worked up in songwriting sessions with some of Nashville’s finest writers, including Paisley, Chris DuBois, Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby, among others. Crow’s longtime writing partner Jeff Trott co-penned two tunes as well.

“It’s been invigorating and satisfying to study what makes a country song work,” says Crow. “I’m still doing what I love, but I’m learning and stretching at the same time.”


Why a country album?

Many encouraged me, but the major character in the story is Brad Paisley. He really believed in me as a country artist. After I performed with Loretta, he came backstage and said, “Now, will you please make a country record? It’s a format you belong to.” I was nervous, because I felt I might be perceived as yet another pop artist trying to make that transition. But Brad offered great support, as did Chris DuBois.


What was their advice?

One thing Brad said was, “You’ve got to turn your vocals up, and make the songs more first person.” He pointed out that if “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Steve McQueen” or “Everyday Is a Winding Road” had come out today, they would have fit the country format.  My songs were already story-oriented—the thing I had to do was to make them more succinct and instrumentally more in the country vein. It really wasn’t that big a departure.


How did you approach your vocals?

I hadn’t written songs with a big vocal range prior to this album. One of the things that’s always been discouraging is when people would come to my shows and say, “Wow, you’re such a better singer live than you are on your records!” Having a lot more range was great. It’s been fun to stretch out and really sing those big, soaring ballads. Luckily I’m sort of like my mom in that my voice has aged well, I think, and has become better than when I started.


Describe the songwriting process.

I wrote with perfect strangers, something totally new for me. I’m probably like most singer-songwriters in that songwriting is a personal process. Plus I’ve had such a great songwriting relationship with Jeff. To walk into a room with two other writers—which is typically the way it works in Nashville—was a real challenge. But I found I really enjoyed that process.


Was it different in other ways?

I’ve had the luxury in pop music of being able to leave some things kind of esoteric in my narrative songwriting, because it means something specific to me. But writing for country involves dropping some of that imagery and getting to the point. I think that’s typically what country music has encapsulated—telling a story in everyman terms. In pop music you can get away with a lot more. I’ve had lyrics I’m really proud of, but not everybody can relate to them. That’s something that will forever be ingrained in my songwriting head. Is this the best line I can put here? Is this the best way of saying what I want to say? That’s a big game-changer for me. It’s something I became more mindful of while doing this record.


Did you want to address the concerns of
contemporary women?

I think I wound up looking back at how it was done in the 1960s and ’70s. I was conscious of writing an album that was about a current-day woman. There are a lot of young women out there in country radio, but you don’t hear too many middle-aged women singing about what it’s like to be a single mom, or those types of issues. There are all those artists we counted on, like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, who wrote those kinds of stories, but it’s become sort of a dead art form. I wanted to write those types of songs about what it’s like to be a working mom. Interestingly enough, I’ve had a great response from men. I’ve had men come up to me and say they love “Waterproof Mascara,” because they were raised by a single mother. I felt like there was a hole where all that stuff used to exist.


Do scheduled writing sessions feel less inspired?

It’s definitely different. But everything about my life is different now. I have two kids—3 and 6. The luxury of waking up and picking up a guitar and spending the morning with a cup of coffee and the newspaper, writing songs, is behind me. As much as I love and value doing that, being a mom—particularly a single mom—involves compromises. Inspiration is something that gets scheduled, but I’m OK with that. I don’t think it means my art form is weakened. I don’t know that getting up and writing alone at 4:30 in the morning makes for a better song. This album is as personal as anything I’ve done. Even though there are a lot of co-writes, there are stories that are so close to me it’s sometimes difficult to sing them.

Any surprises during the sessions?

It was great having Zac Brown come in and sing on “Homesick,” a song I wrote with Chris Stapleton. And I actually wrote “Stay at Home Mother” after the album was completed. I felt there was one thing missing, so Natalie Hemby and I spent an afternoon writing that song. But I think the big surprise for me was the way we recorded the album, with four or five musicians in the room. There was a feeling of egoless musicianship, a sense that when people play together in this town it’s because they have great respect for what the other person does.


Have you had to tailor the live show to accommodate the new material?

Not really. We usually play four or five of the new songs each night, and they’ve fit beautifully with the older material. “Shotgun” is practically the sister song to “Steve McQueen.” “Give It to Me” is practically the sister song to “If It Makes You Happy.” “Homecoming Queen” and “Strong Enough” are very similar as well. “Easy” sounds like “First Cut Is the Deepest.” Everything works great together.


Tell us about your studio.

I have a couple of API recording consoles, including a new 1608. I also have a Neve BCM 10. There’s an old Studer, but we don’t hook that up anymore. I have all the vintage gear I’ve always had, from Fairchilds to Universal Audio 1176 compressors—all old stuff I love. There’s also a roomful of guitars and basses, along with Hammonds and other keyboards—everything you can imagine. And it’s all located in a room above 10 horses.


What’s your go-to guitar for songwriting?

I’ve bought a lot of beautiful guitars but I always end up coming back to the 1964 Gibson Country Western. I call it the old moneymaker, because all the hits I’ve ever had were written on that guitar. I play an original model—always keep it close by. Gibson made a signature model as well, and I also play a Les Paul quite a bit.


Do you recall your first song?

It was for a contest for Missourians to write a song of pride about the state. My mom found the sheet music for it just the other day, but I’ve yet to sit and play it. I’m sure it’s quite hideous.


Know a hit when you hear it?

I never get that right. I’m always wrong when I tell people what I think the first single should be. “All I Wanna Do” barely made the first album. My brother kept saying, “That’s the biggest song on the record!” I was like, “No way.” I really struggled with whether or not I wanted it on the album, and of course it wound up being a big song.

You struggled for years and then success came fast. Were you prepared?

It wasn’t like it is now, suddenly you’re huge and the entire world knows who you are. We worked for a long time before that night I won the Grammys. Then I received the Grammys, we went to the parties—and the next day we played in Fresno. And then the day after that we played in San Francisco. I didn’t have time to sit back and think, “Wow, I’ve really made it. Now I can rest on my laurels.” It was a nice acknowledgement for years of work, but it didn’t change the way I felt about my job, about being a touring artist and a songwriter. And I still feel that way. It’s hard to internalize the accolades when really you’re doing something simply because you love it.


Is dealing with celebrity easier in Nashville than L.A.?

That’s something that’s also changed since I first became successful. Celebrity wasn’t as intrusive as it is today. I’ll probably always be uncomfortable with that aspect of what I do, so much so that living in Nashville has been a real blessing. I have my boys here, and they don’t get their pictures taken whenever they go to school or when we get off an airplane. There are no paparazzi. It’s definitely the way I choose to live. I don’t enjoy the celebrity aspect of what I do.


How far into the future do you look?

I try to at least get to the end of the day. (laughs) I know I’m picking up my kid in three hours, and that I’m going back on the road this weekend. It’s encouraging to think that I’ve been doing this for 25 years—and yet I’m still excited about it. I’m excited about songwriting, excited about what’s ahead, and I’m still learning. But the days of looking out five years into the future are definitely behind me.  M


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