Sheryl Crow Crosses the Country Divide

Sheryl Crow's Country Roots
Sheryl Crow performs at LP Field during CMA Music Festival 2013. (Photo Credit: John Russell / CMA)
By Bob Doerschuk
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Sheryl Crow didn’t get off the Greyhound in Nashville, with guitar case in hand and a heartful of dreams.
Actually, though, in a way, she did. She didn’t arrive by bus, but otherwise she could relate to the excitement and apprehensions that many new arrivals feel as they first set foot in Music City.
Of course, Crow had certain advantages, having already achieved worldwide superstardom and earned nine Grammy Awards and six Platinum albums, including two that have reached triple and one, Tuesday Night Music Club, that’s seven-times Platinum.
Still, when she bought a place outside of Nashville about five years ago, she felt like an outsider, albeit a well-connected one. Drawn to Middle Tennessee by the lifestyle as much as its musical opportunities, Crow began reaching out to some of the folks she knew in town.
“I got to know several people through Kimberly Paisley,” she said. “She had a girls’ dinner and introduced me around. I started to make friends. Nashville is much like a small town. People don’t show up with casseroles, but they make sure that you’re finding your way.”
Kimberly’s husband, Brad, invited her to a writing session with Chris DuBois. “Talk about a crash course in songwriting!” Crow remembered. “Brad and Chris work over a long period of time to make sure their songs are right. And you can tell. Some of Brad’s songs are so beautifully crafted that it’s intimidating.”
Amusingly, DuBois has a mirror image of that first session. “It was very intimidating to write with someone like her,” he admitted. “Brad and I have always been big fans of hers, so just the thought of sitting down in a room with her was nerve-wracking.”
Everyone soon calmed down enough to write a haunting tune, “Waterproof Mascara,” about a mother’s sadness at not being all she should be for her young daughter. That was the start of a series of songs written by Crow with DuBois and other Nashville stalwarts, 12 of which wound up on Feels Like Home, her newest release on Warner Bros. and, by her own description, her first true Country album.
“There are songs from my old catalog that are ‘too Country for Country,’” she said. “‘All I Wanna Do’ has that feel from the intro to the outro. It’s the same with ‘If It Makes You Happy,’ ‘Strong Enough to Be My Man’ and ‘Can’t Cry Anymore.’ But there’s also a lot of stuff on the new record that doesn’t sound like Country. One of them is ‘Waterproof Mascara’; another is ‘Crazy Ain’t Original These Days’ (written by Crow, Al Anderson and Leslie Satcher). And that’s OK too, because the Country format now encompasses a lot of things.”
“When I first started, every label in L.A. said, ‘We don’t know what to do with you. You’re too Country. You’re too blue-eyed soul,’” she recalled. “I feel like I’ve always been like a suburb of Country Music — and now Country Music has grown and engulfed my suburb.”
Crow revels in the freedom she now feels. “A lot of the songs I had written in the name of rock ‘n’ roll were devoid of range,” she observed. “I can sing range; I just haven’t had the opportunity, because I haven’t been able to write those songs. People ask me, ‘Who are your favorite Country singers?’ Well, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly (Parton) and Emmy (Emmylou Harris), who are all big-range singers. Tammy (Wynette) was a big-range singer. So is Connie Smith. So it’s such a treat to go out and play ‘Give It To Me’ (Crow and Jeff Trott) and ‘Waterproof Mascara,’ songs that have a big range, and pull an audience into a song they’d never heard before.”
No stranger to writing with others, Crow had to adjust to methods that are unique to Nashville. “People here write in threes,” she said. “I’d never experienced that before. I think it’s probably because the objective is to get the song finished in order to up the percentage of getting cuts — not in a bad way, but obviously you’re going to get a better chance to get it recorded if it’s finished.”
Crow insists that Country has allowed her to put more of her true self into her music. Some of that has to do with how the format mixes the lead vocal. Crow’s co-producer, Justin Niebank, realized the best thing he could do for her on Feels Like Home is let her hear herself as clearly as possible.
“I’d gotten so used to producing myself that the last thing I would concentrate on was being a vocalist,” Crow said. “But Justin gave me the freedom to just walk up to the mic and sing. I never actually heard myself sound so good in my headphones. Who could expect that I’d feel so inspired at a job I’ve been doing for 20 years?”
“As simple as it is, the headphone mix is one of the great missing links in making records,” Niebank said. “When people put on headphones, it should sound like a record. Putting up microphones and running them through mic pres ain’t the gig; it’s getting the headphones so when people put them on, they’re blown away.”
Crow’s embrace of the Country lyric tradition makes Feels Like Home a career milestone. “In my early days, I masked almost any true emotions in a narrative,” she said. “I would create a character and hide behind her. Now I’m older and I love writing from the first person. It doesn’t put me in fear. I feel differently about my art. My life informs my art in different ways than it ever has before. So now, I like making people feel prickly with an emotion.”
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