Artists | Sheryl Crow
Songwriter. Activist. Rock star. Woman. Champion. Mother. Nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow is many things, but at the core, she remains a creative spirit channeling her talents into music that lifts people up, brings them together, and speaks to the truths on the horizon.
Twenty-five years after winning that first Grammy, as well as Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “All I Wanna Do,” the Kennett, Missouri-born guitarist/vocalist/creative thought about all she’d done, the places she’d been, the lives that’d touched hers – and she saw the rich tapestry her journey had become. A life beyond dreams, songs that defined the third wave of feminism, a rockist’s ability to sweep the pop charts without losing its edge and enough wide-open Midwestern joy to captivate the world.
Feeling blessed by it all, it was a request from Lisa Kristofferson that sowed the seeds for Threads. Asked to sing some of her husband’s most enduring songs as he struggled with the onset of Lyme disease, Crow was moved by the love, compassion and tenderness that exudes from musical connections. It made her think about her own career – making her recognize her own treasure.
“It stemmed from working with Kris at the ‘Austin City Limits 40th Anniversary,’ and Lisa asking me if I’d come in and record some stuff. Just for that brief moment, I felt like, ‘This is it! Life is tiny. It’s so short, and you really have to embrace the people you have loved.’ And it was just a moment that I realized I needed to acknowledge in my music, to honor and kind of immerse myself in.”
“It was kind of obvious,” she continues of Threads’ genesis. “It’s the most important people who I have worked with throughout my life, my career or the people who I wanted to emulate when I was a kid, and whom I’ve gotten to know. Stevie Nicks, whom I adore. Keith Richards and Willie Nelson, people who embraced me and welcomed me to the party.”
Beyond those who led her, Crow also wanted to reach forward to the ones coming next. She laughs about the generosity extended to her, happy to shine some light on the next generation of makers and tellers. “I had the good fortune of being on tours, like the Outlaw Tour, where there were lots of young artists who were really special. I got to see Margo Price and Jason Isbell. Brandi Carlile I’ve known for years. I wanted an opportunity to have an opportunity to say, ‘There was a Before. There is a Now. And there’s an After.’”
Threads does all that and more. Seventeen songs sung, played or written with Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Chuck D, Johnny Cash, Andra Day, Eric Clapton, Sting, Chris Stapleton, Kris Kristofferson, St. Vincent, James Taylor, Maren Morris, Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr, Vince Gill, Lucius, Emmylou Harris, NRBQ’s Al Anderson, Neil Young, as well as the artists already mentioned. This was a musical homecoming, as well as a celebration of how much music can mean.
From the whirling female empowerment of the Nicks/Morris stomper “Prove You Wrong,” hailed by no less than The New York Times’ Jon Pareles as “a big, gleaming bulldozer of a song, built for loudnesswars radio and women’s self-sufficiency,” to the gentle encouragement of the Gill almost lullabye “For The Sake of Love,” the project moves through uncertainty, acceptance, owning your reality and trusting life–but also doing the work. As a post-modern meditation on how to live in times like these, Threads offers thoughtful reckoning and a world of music without labels.
“I can’t even imagine writing anything that didn’t have meaning attached to it at this point,” she explains. “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 this whole country is built on. I watch everything slide backwards, and it’s really difficult to not address that.”
“At my age, I have absolutely nothing to lose, because I don’t even know who I’m competing with. It’s liberating.” That freedom – and euphoria – drives “Live Wire,” a hands in the air embrace of loving the kind of dowhat-he-will man that matches gospel/pop/soul queen Mavis Staples and rock/blues icon Bonnie Raitt, as well as the Bowie-esque surrender and acceptance of the unknown in George Harrison’s lovely “Beware of Darkness,” which sees Eric Clapton’s guitar seeking a new plane –having created the transcendent guitarwork on Harrison’s original recording– as Sting and Brandi Carlile explore awareness and acceptance. Jason Isbell contributes both blistering guitar drive and a swooping vocal counterpoint on Bob Dylan’s frisky “Everything Is Broken.” Joe Walsh offers his signature kamikaze guitar glaze and lean-in vocal to “These Still Are The Good Old Days.” Gary Clark Jr’s wah-wah guitar sparks counter Chuck D’s exhortations as Andra Day’s vocal spirals and scats on the Stax-feeling call to action “The Story of Everything.”
Collaborating with in-demand producer/drummer Steve Jordan, known for his work with Robert Cray, John Mayer, Herbie Hancock, Patty Scialfa and Keith Richard’s X-Pensive Winos, the old friends mined the roots of soul, country, vintage pop, rock, Americana and songwriter-leaning music. “I’ve known Steve and run into him for 20 years. After cutting ‘Border Lord,’ I remember feeling heavy after hanging with Kris, and just really contemplative, very introspective.”
“I called Steve, and said, ‘I feel like making a record with people I love. Let’s sit and dream about who we would ask. And so we did, and it went from there.”
They traveled to New York and spent a few days in Keith Richards’ company. Always a fan of “The Worst,” Crow knew she couldn’t Xerox the Stones’ recording. Instead the trio cast for a new way to embrace a pirate’s song. “We went in, and Keith played acoustic originally, Steve played drums. Then Keith basically became the mad scientist. He played the bass, an electric (guitar), a nylon string guitar, then a very Floyd Kramer piano part.
“Just over the course of a day and a half, he’d just lay things down, and we’d hang out, and he’d lay more things down and hang out. It was the most fun way to make a record. When you’re around him, you know you’re around something undefinable: a bit of a madman, at the same time, brilliant beyond belief, extremely well-read. He’s wicked. He’s naughty. He’s the architect of a groove nobody has.”
That could be said for many of the guests. Whether Chris Stapleton’s steamy soul/country desperation of romantic meltdown tempering “Tell Me When It’s Over,” the slinking sting of Annie Clark/St Vincent’s half talk/half taunt churning indictment “Would Want To Be Like You,” the timeless torch of Willie Nelson on “Lonely Alone,” or Lucius’ sumptuous harmonies on the Petula Clark/Dionne Warwick pop “Don’t,” each met the classically trained Crow on their own platform.
Even Crow’s 1996 “Redemption Day,” a song of reckoning and forgiveness, found a new gravitas on a stark piano-grounded, then string-laden treatment that merged vocals from Johnny Cash. Recorded shortly before the legend passed away, the song’s truth expands to hear his aging baritone contemplating her words from his place as a man of faith and humanity.
“When I sat down to write it, I was trying to write a really heartbroken song over a guy I’d just split up with. I was crushed, trying to write my quintessential heartbreak love song. Nothing was good enough. So I put my guitar away, took out my computer and wrote ‘Redemption Day’ in 10 minutes. Just typing, one line after another.”
“I really felt when I wrote it, it was important that it be of that moment. Then when Johnny did it, he thought it was so important that it be of that moment. Now we have this version, and I can’t imagine a more appropriate time for those words to come out. Who knows? Twenty-five years from now if things will be even more dire. That’s the greatest gift you can give a song: the gift of timelessness, that it transcends time – that it finds its moments.”
Beyond the obvious – Crow works hard to create music that while “of the moment,” will feel current whenever one hears it – there is that sense these 17 songs were things she wanted– no, needed– to create. Whether the fragile acoustic embrace of “Nobody’s Perfect,” featuring Americana godmother Emmylou Harris, the pop/folk confession “Flying Blind” with James Taylor or the crunchy “Cross Creek Road” which features mentor Don Henley, Margo Price and Lukas Nelson along with Neil Young’s chunky signature guitar, Threads is as lived in and comfortable as a favorite flannel or the jeans you’ve had since college.
Music that pours from the soul directly into the listener opens portals of memory, emotion, hope. For the songwriter who taught music before heading to California and a career making songs come to life, that is what originally drew her to Nicks, Raitt, Richards, Nelson, Staples, Cash and the rest.
She laughs thinking about Gary Clark, Jr. who plays guitar on “The Story of Everything,” then says, “He came in and auditioned for me for the 100 Miles from Memphis Tour, just a young kid. I was like, ‘No, he’s his own singular self. He can’t stand on the side of the stage and play the parts from somebody’s album.’ He was an artist, and he could have done it, but I didn’t want him to.”
For Gill, Walsh and storied Nicks/Richards/Warren Zevon/Jackson Browne sessionmaster Waddy Wachtel, as well as Isbell, Clapton and Davis, Threads leans into the possibility of electric guitar. Gripping, liquid, serrated, smooth, each man brought both their most subtle and their most kinetic playing to various spots on the album, each – seemingly – recognizing the opportunity to make their playing a voice unto itself on the recording. “I grew up in cover band that covered ‘Funk 49’ and ‘Walk Away,’ ‘Life in the Fast Lane,’” Crow says of the guitar’s role in her life, her music and this project. “Joe has a style and a sound that is uniquely his. And Bonnie, 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, even though I’d never played guitar.
“I called Eric and asked him to play on ‘Beware of the Dark,’ and he told me he was feeling a little nervous about it. I think what he did on the song was just, I felt like he was tapping into George Harrison a little, or into his love of George, because what he played was just out of this world. It’s some of the best playing I’ve ever heard him do.”
Inspiring people through the music and the songs is important to Crow, not just to further her own music, but to enrich the world around her. “I think we’ve got to find a way to inspire young girls to pick up a guitar again. You gotta find ways to inspire boys and girls to dig deep and write about something. You gotta figure out how to inspire something.”
Bringing people together, focusing on the connections, finding ways to make music and create something that speaks, those are the things that drive the woman who’s sold over 50 million albums and created some of rock’s most enduring moments, including “If It Makes You Happy,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Steve McQueen,” “Every Day Is A Winding Road” and “A Change Would Do You Good.”
“I definitely think you can’t really define what inspiration is,” she offers. “And then there is a great work ethic. I think where you get better with the more you write, you also understand there are moments of divinity where you tap into something larger than your cellular make-up. To quote Lauren Hill, ‘Everything is everything.’ You have to look at the changes in consciousness. It’s difficult to compete with the demise of the attention span, but do we have a responsibility to educate? I do”.