Sheryl Crow talks working with her idols and writing songs with meaning

Aug 21 2019
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Sheryl Crow talks working with her idols and writing songs with meaning

By: Holly Gleason

Sheryl Crow is going on about Eric Clapton, about the part he played on George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness,” one of 14 songs on her new album Threads. As someone who’s lent her voice to Don Henley and Michael Jackson, the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist rock icon understands the power of a supporting player to really drive home a song’s essence — and she knows even the most gifted legends can still find ways to lift others up beyond measure.

To hear the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s quavering guitar solo on “Darkness” is to plug into another dimension of vulnerability. Crow knows that both the song and the performance, which also features Brandi Carlile and Sting on vocals, borders on the divine.

“George for me, musically and personally, is a giant hero. All Things Must Pass is maybe my favorite record of all time. So, I felt like this song for these times, it’s a good moment and is important. I wanted my children to hear it; I wanted them to know it.

“I called Eric and asked him. He told me was feeling a little nervous about it. And I think what he did on the song was just... I felt like he was tapping into George, or into his love for George, or his relationship with George, because what he played, it is just out of this world. It’s some of the best playing I’ve ever heard him do.”

Certain artists have a gift for recognizing — and bringing out — the best in others. 

Even more importantly, some have a self-awareness that allows them to drop back, consider their place in the world. Without being preachy, they’re able to bring a gravitas to their music that makes the human condition shine even at its most doubtful. Crow is one of those fearless women, willing to dig in and offer the tricky parts.

“For me, most of my songs are expressing something I’m going through,” says the woman with hair the color of maple syrup and eyes that look into the person she’s speaking to. “My struggle has always been about being OK with not knowing what’s next. My struggle is with things being out of control.”

While the music business contracts and streams, ebbs and changes modalities weekly, Crow’s stardom is fairly fixed. An eventual Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, “All I Wanna Do,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “Strong Enough,” “Every Day Is A Winding Road,” “Steve McQueen,” “Soak up the Sun” and “A Change Would Do You Good” are part of the last quarter century’s soundtrack. Her willingness to invest even pop songs with lyrical meat affords her an endurance many post-MTV acts have not enjoyed.

Just as importantly, her self-awareness allows her to dive deeper rather than chase trends. Today, the woman living in South Nashville admits songs have to matter, or they’re not worth doing. And it’s not just intellectual vanity, but a deep passion for the world around her.

“I can’t even imagine writing anything that didn’t have meaning attached to it at this point,” Crow says, leaning forward in the beige overstuffed armchair. “I have small kids, and I’m just enraged when I watch the disregard for the future of the planet and the undermining of what the whole country’s built on. I watch everything slide backwards.

“As a songwriter, it’s really difficult to not address that. And at my age, I have absolutely nothing to lose. So, it’s sort of liberating.”

Threads, Crow’s all-star reckoning, combines the various strands of music the nine-time Grammy winner twisted into her signature rock-pop varietal. The 14-song collection shows a woman fully aware of not just what her music means in terms of sales, but the power the message can contain. 

Launched with a stark duet of “Redemption Day,” merging Johnny Cash’s vocals from his American Recordings sessions with her own prayerful offering of a song she’d written in 1996 after visiting Bosnia, palpable awareness colors many of the songs. But it’s not just a call to awareness, as much as a buttressing of hope. 

Originally titled People I Love, the seeds of Threads were sown when Lisa Kristofferson approached Crow during a taping for the 40th Anniversary of Austin City Limits about recording some of her husband’s songs with him. Kris Kristofferson was battling the impact of Lyme disease; his wife was looking to create a fresh sense of the iconic musician’s legacy.

“Just for a brief moment, I felt like, ‘This is it!’” Crow recalls of the sessions with her hero. “You realize life is tiny, it’s so short — and you really have to embrace the people you have loved. (The experience) was just a moment that I needed to acknowledge that in my music, to honor that and kind of immerse myself...

“For about three, four days, I felt really heavy after hanging with Kris, contemplative, really introspective. It struck me. ‘What do I do next?’ And I called Steve [Jordan, the drummer-producer], saying, ‘I feel like making a record with the people I love. Lets sit and dream about who would be the ask.’”

Jordan, who anchors Keith Richards’ Xpensive Winos and has produced Robert Cray, John Mayer, Herbie Hancock, Buddy Guy, Patti Scialfa and Boz Scaggs, holds a special place in Crow’s world. Someone who understands music from the blues undertow and the rock thrust provides the right framework for what Crow had in mind. “I’ve known him and run into him for 20 years, and we’ve always said we needed to do something together. But we never got around to it...”

For a woman with a career as storied as Crow’s, the guests are a who’s who of rock, soul, hip-hop, country, gospel and alternative. And it’s not just genres, it’s generations. Crow’s record serves as a work where future legends and established icons are all part of the creative thread that holds her latest — and possibly — last work together.

Jason Isbell. Stevie Nicks. Chuck D. St. Vincent. Willie Nelson. Andre Day. Keith Richards. Mavis Staples. Gary Clark Jr. Bonnie Raitt. Maren Morris. Joe Walsh. Lucius. Vince Gill. Margo Price. James Taylor. Brandi Carlile. Lukas Nelson. Emmylou Harris. Sting. Vince Gill. Kris Kristofferson. Eric Clapton.

“I thought of the people I wanted to emulate when I was a kid, whom I’ve gotten to know and who have been with me, like Stevie, whom I adore, Keith Richards and Willie Nelson. They’ve all embraced me and welcomed me to the party. And the younger artists, I had the good fortune of being on tours where I got to see Margo Price and Jason Isbell. Brandi I’ve known for years. But I wanted to show there was a before, there is a now and there’s an after. I love all these people; they’re wonderful. I wanted to have a really loving recording experience, something uniquely honest.”

Honest it is. “For The Sake of Love,” featuring a breathtaking vocal turn from Gill, is an unflinching endorsement of transcendent love, while the Burt Bacharach-era Dionne Warwick-invoking “Don’t,” showcasing Brooklyn-turned-LA alt pop’s Lucius merges feminism and romanticism. Even the more straight up, whirling country-forward rebuke “It Wouldn’t Take Much,” with Nicks and Morris, suggests a candor that makes most people tremble.

“I’d had ‘For The Sake of Love’ for years, and it always came back up for me, especially when I see people defending who they love,” the classically-trained former music teacher offers. “That’s the whole point of the song, especially now when I feel there is such an attack on people who are gay, or trans, or even I had ... I’ve had several boyfriends who were black, and there was a point at which I was looked down on when we went to Australia! Just the fact anyone would weigh in on who you love, especially because at the end of the day, the only thing worth fighting for is love.

“And I asked Vince, who has shown up for me in so many ways, if he’d sing on it. I really thought, ‘There needs to be a male point of view in the bridge,’ and he’s the guy who’s such a great singer and player, who lives and breathes music and friendship.”

Gill, as well as Clapton, Walsh, LA rock royalty Waddy Wachtel and Isbell, all invest Threads with a real guitar-driven feel. For a woman with two medium-sized boys who knows rock is a young woman’s game, she’s not flinching when it comes to rocking or making records.

“The expectation is once you have kids, you’re never going to write another great song; you’re never going to be sexy again. Sure, there’s the physical challenge of your kids coming first, and being invited to come play or sing at someone’s show. You have to ask, ‘Do I miss my kids ball game? Or go sing?’ Men go on the road, (while) it’s a woman’s job to keep the home together. — and the men can come and ago.”

While judicious about what she leaves home for, there is nothing lagging in her writing, playing or singing. Inspired in part by Staples, who celebrated turning 80 with all-star birthday concerts in New York, LA and Nashville, Crow thinks female voices can be as fierce as they need to be. 

“Live Wire,” which she shares with Staples and Raitt, bristles with raw erotic charge from loving a certain kind of lowdown man.

“I wanted something she could sink her teeth into. Mavis is 80, and still making some of the best records ever. So alive, so filled with energy and passion. You want to bottle that up! And Bonnie I’ve known for years, but I was 17 when I saw her in St. Louis. I’d never seen a woman play guitar like that, and it really changed the way I saw myself. I wanted to learn to play lead, and I’d never played guitar.”

She’s never really hip hopped, either, but the right now social commentary of “Story of Everything” finds Crow flank-to-flank with her Rock the Vote cohort Chuck D and soul siren Andra Day. She offers, “Andra’s not conforming to anything, and I love what she sings about. She’s a — I don’t want to say Billie Holiday, but Billie Holiday wrote about a lot of really hard stuff, and Andra’s like that. Then to juxtapose that with Gary Clark, who’s obviously the fire in the belly and Chuck D?

“I just felt really urgent about this lyric, and I’d known Chuck for years. I asked him if I sent him something, would he do what he felt on it. Chuck has a great bead on everything. He’s so smart and savvy, and he’s so honest that I felt like what he brings will give it the weight it needs.”

No flex as she says this, just a musician explaining creative pairings. So much of Threads leans into other artists’ strengths and sovereignties, whether Emmylou Harris’ silvery voice on “Nobody’s Perfect,” Chris Stapleton’s white knuckle soul for “Tell Me When It’s Over” or Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) bringing a terse reality-checking alt-rock churn “Wouldn’t Wanna Be Like You.”

Even her post-mortem duet with Johnny Cash is fraught with a weighty immediacy. “I really felt when I wrote it, it was so important it be out that moment. Then when Johnny did it, he felt like it was important that it be out in that moment — and he was very careful with the song. He called and we talked about the song, what the lines meant line by line.

“And now we have this version, and I can’t imagine a more appropriate time for it to come out. Who knows when it’s 25 years from now, will things be even more dire? That’s the greatest gift a song can give you: timelessness. And that it finds its moments.”

Pausing again, not wanting to come off as preachy, Sheryl Crow weighs her words and the reality she’s currently living in. “You have to look at the change of consciousness, and it’s difficult to compete with the demise of the attention span. Do I feel like we have a responsibility to educate people? I do, and I know you can’t compete with commerce. 

“The reason we’re here is because of commerce. It’s tantamount. The dollar is king, but that’s not... where I am now, I just tend to, it’s hard for me to not write about reality. I gravitate towards it. You can’t really define what inspiration is, and there is that great work ethic, where you get better and better the more you write — and you understand. There are more moments of divinity where you’re tapped into something that’s larger than your cellular make-up, which is good.” 

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