Sheryl Crow: Words + Music
Today is Sheryl Crow’s birthday, and I’m writing to encourage you to celebrate with me by listening to her tell her life’s story in 97 very short minutes. Audible has an ongoing series, free to its subscribers and produced in part by the inimitable rock journalist Bill Flanagan (a lifelong personal hero of mine) called Words + Music. When the mood strikes, I’ll share reflections on others who’ve given the medium their all (Smokey Robinson, St. Vincent and James Taylor chief among them), but being that its’ Ms. Crow’s birthday, and being that like Flanagan, she’s been someone I’ve admired since I was a teenager, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share why I think Sheryl Crow is just so great.
Tuesday Night Music Club hit me squarely between the eyes at a time when I was looking for something precisely like it, something that reflected the evolution my musical education was taking but was also hitting a spot in the nation’s cultural zeitgeist. I was 12 or 13. My dad bought me the CD, and as handed it to me, he said, “I think you’re gonna like this. Oh, and she’s from St. Louis.” He said that because it was around this time that I began going to shows (most often with a chaperon) at now defunct club called Mississippi Nights, sneaking in underage to see local bands like Uncle Tupelo as they were shaping the folk/grunge genre that would come to be called alt-country.
And here was Sheryl Crow… and like me. She was from St. Louis… like me.
Come to find out, she was the elementary school music teacher for some friends of mine (in fact, had my family moved from Kansas just a few years earlier, there’s a good chance she would’ve been my music teacher), and from a local news channel’s intrepid reporting at the time of the album’s release, I would learn that her touring band that year would be made up of musicians from St. Louis, many of them from wedding bands, bands for whom later in high school I would run the PA system, and while the band was on their smoke break, I would lead the happy couple in a rousing rendition of “The Electric Slide” or, god forbid, “The Hokey Pokey.”
In a 200-level poetry class in my junior year of college, my professor gave me an assignment: “Go home and rack your brain for a cultural figure from your hometown that left an impression and write about it.”
My thoughts on the walk home from campus vacillated from Ulysses S. Grant to Ozzie Smith to Chuck Berry and Tina Turner to Bob Costas until — perhaps at first anyways ironically — I settled on Sheryl Crow. As I began to dig into her story, and learn about her upbringing, I came to realize it was not unlike that of my father. They both grew up in towns far enough from St. Louis (she was south. He was north) that they had their own heartbeats, their own ways of being, places where St. Louis felt like the big city. I learned about her time on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour, and I realized the sheer volume of songs that she’d written and performed that I unabashedly loved. I remembered loving her performance of “Run, Baby, Run” at Woodstock ’94, a compilation album that played as large part in making me the live music fan that I am today as those shows at Mississippi Nights did. And I remembered tuning into her first television appearance on the Late Show, as influential a platform for me as there was at the time.
And then there it was. In an interview she spoke of a time writing with Bob Dylan who encouraged her with this gem, appropriate for my assignment, “Don’t give up the song until every line could be its own song.” It’s sage advice for any writer. Consider the impact of each line. If there’s no meat on the bone, throw the sucker out. Upon reflecting in the manner required by the assignment, I turned in my work, and to my surprise, my professor was impressed. “I’m so used to reading about 19th and early 20th century figures. This was a refreshing change of pace. I’ve never really considered her in this way,” he said, and as we talked through it in an office hours session, we collectively came to see her collaborations with Dylan, Clapton, Cash, Kristofferson and Willie Nelson as legitimizing her contributions.
Her ability to take cover songs or record something reminiscent of that which was and release it in present day, having it stand for something altogether new and modern was also a big lesson that I’ve carried into my own work. By integrating aspects of the past with aspects of the present, time and again I’ve build something meaningful for future audiences. And as my professor reflected upon the assignment at its culmination in class, he left us with some gold I hold onto every day of my life.
“You’ve got to know where you come from, in order to know where you’re goin.'”
Update: After posting this, while listening to her cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” from Music + Lyrics, our 10yo said, “I like that song. It’s so… peaceful.”