It's 11 a.m., time for Wyatt Crow's swim lesson. He steps confidently into the infinity pool, carrying a piece of zucchini bread. "Let's don't eat that in the pool, sweet pea," his mom says firmly. Wyatt doesn't want to put sunblock on his face, but he agrees to do it, on one condition: He wants his mom to apply it. So Sheryl Crow walks to the edge of the pool and rubs some onto her six-year-old's nose.
Although Crow moved to Nashville seven years ago, she still owns this 11-acre, Spanish-style compound in Hollywood because no one's bought it from her. (It's quite lovely, if you have $12.5 million.) This is where Crow stays when she's in L.A., as she is today, to play a new song on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno — specifically, a song that's inaugurating the second phase of her career.
Sheryl Crow has made a country album called Feels Like Home. That's the news hook, but the singer, who often has a sensible, what's-the-big-deal attitude, doesn't see what all the whoop-de-do is about. "It's a small change in style," she says. "The country format today is a lot less country than the music I've been making for years. That may sound arrogant, but we've been doing a take on the Flying Burrito Brothers for a long time."
In the music Crow most admires, there's no barrier between rock and country. In the Seventies, at the peak of their rock stardom, Elton John, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones all wrote and recorded songs that were identifiably country. Crow, who's always been a classic-rock idealist, thinks she should have the same cross-genre freedom.
She's now inside, sitting in the Western-decor living room, where her younger son, three-year-old Levi, is playing with his train set. She regards being a single mom at the age of 51 as a much bigger change than "going country." The boys go on the tour bus with her. "We take the Legos, we take the sippy cups, the whole thing. They come to soundcheck, we eat dinner, I read to them, tuck them into bed, and go onstage. Usually, Levi asks, 'Can you play just two songs, Mommy?' That's it, just two songs." Like most single moms, Crow is often exhausted. "I played at 9:30 the other night, and I literally had to drink a Diet Coke before I went onstage. If I'm not onstage, I'm in bed by 10."
Recently, Crow overheard one of her sons tell someone, "We don't have a dad," which made her sad. Crow adopted Wyatt in 2007, and then Levi in 2010, after recovering from breast cancer. She wanted to be a mom and expected that she would have kids as "the outcome of a loving relationship. That's what I dreamed of having."
Crow decided not to wait for a husband. "For some people, adopting feels like a consolation prize. It didn't feel that way to me. And there are so many kids being raised by single parents now. My kids go to a school where there are tons of adopted kids."
Crow arrives in Burbank at one p.m. to rehearse for tonight's Leno appearance. The studio feels like a hockey rink, and she wraps her shoulders and neck in a gray shawl while she and her band run through "Give It to Me," a surging, sexually blunt ballad. She'd thought about making a country record for years, but Jimmy Iovine, the head of her label, discouraged her. "Jimmy was like, 'I don't do that,'" says her manager, Scooter Weintraub, who has joined Crow in her dressing room. After she released her final album for A&M in 2010, Crow signed with Warner Music Nashville. And she's not going back: "This is for the rest of her life," Weintraub says.
It's been 20 years and a month since Crow's first album was released, and she views her career, not to mention her life, in two parts: before cancer and after cancer.
"When I started," she says, "I had a Puritan work ethic: If I work very hard, things will unfold. When I became well-known, I became really hard and insulted by every bad thing I read about me. I wasn't joyful. I'd win a Grammy, yet I couldn't internalize that I'd earned it. I just kept my nose to the grindstone."
In 2006, Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer and did a six-week course of radiation. "I was in shock. Also, everything in my personal life that I'd counted on was slowly slipping away." Without saying his name, she's referring to the end of her three-year relationship with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. "The publicness of it was devastating. A ton of people are reading about you, some feeling sorry for you, and some celebrating your misfortune."
When I mention Armstrong, who admitted in January that he won seven Tour de France titles by using illegal drugs, her body seems to stiffen. "It probably sounds really insulting, but this is one of those I-don't-give-a-fuck moments: I don't think about him. It's a nuisance when I'm asked about him, because they weren't the happiest of days. People still attach me to him, and it's gross." When she's asked about Armstrong, she often replies, "Oh, I don't really want to talk about that." It's a phrase, she says with a smile, "I've had to use quite a lot lately."
Radiation therapy worked, and Crow is cancer-free. She says it "gave me a do-over, a chance to step back and say, 'These are the things I'll never repeat.'" The next year, Crow adopted Wyatt. And now she's made that country album.
"Sheryl's about to get naked. You have to leave now," someone on her team instructs me. Crow changes into a tight lace dress, and a few minutes later, she and her band nail the performance of "Give It to Me." After congratulations and hugs in the hallway, it's time for her to go home and see Wyatt and Levi, whose bedtimes aren't far away. "Don't put that in the article," she says with a laugh, stepping into a black sedan. "Say I'm going to a bar."