“I wasn’t meant to be Cavalcade of Stars,” says Sheryl Crow. “Hopefully it feels natural and cohesive.” She’s talking about her impressive mic-drop of a new album, Threads, which includes a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony’s worth of guests (among them: Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Eric Clapton, Sting, Kris Kristofferson, St. Vincent, James Taylor, Maren Morris, Gary Clark Jr., Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris, and Neil Young). The album is intended as the final full LP from Crow, 57, as she plans to focus on singles and other quicker releases. Still, she says, “Never say never.”
I just interviewed Maren Morris, and she talks about you the same way that you talk about your musical heroes.
She’s my little hero. This has been a really interesting process for me in that the first person I worked with on the project was Kris Kristofferson, and that was what really gave me the desire to try and capture as many collaborative moments as possible, because I had the wonderful fortune of having a career that’s been built around collaborating with people from the early get go. One of my first high-profile gigs was being asked to perform with the Rolling Stones, and I was making my second record. And Bob Dylan came through town and asked me to perform with him. I’ve just been really blessed that way, and as I get older, those moments are even more precious to me. Part of the great thing about creating those opportunities is that I’ve also had the good fortune of seeing what’s coming next. There’s a great amount of music being made that’s still in the tradition of singer/songwriters and rock n’ roll that doesn’t necessarily get played on popular radio, but it’s definitely arrived and thriving. And I can hear that in a lot of these young people, and so it makes me feel like that tradition is alive still, and it’s going to go forward. And so getting to put some of that into the record has been wonderful as well.
This lineup is a real testament to how much your peers respect you. Is it also a bit of well-deserved muscle-flexing on your part?
My fear would be that anybody would think that. Honestly, I made a country record and promoted that, which felt like everything but having an authentic musical experience. So I wanted to just make music with people I love. And it did feel kind of like, “I don’t know how to follow this up, and I don’t really think I want to.”
How important were Emmylou Harris and Stevie Nicks in helping you dream of a place for yourself in music?
Oh, my gosh, so important. Emmylou, she made so many records I loved even before she worked with Daniel Lanois, and then she went on to a whole new way of writing amazing stuff. Red Dirt Girl is a desert-island record for me. I hold her up as a great template. And Stevie is a fully realized artist. She looks at life as one big cinematic moment, and all her songs spring from that. And she still brings it live.
How did you pick “The Worst,” an obscure country cut on Voodoo Lounge, for your Keith Richards duet?
The first time I heard that album, I was like, “I want to record that song.” It’s the quintessential pre-apology to a woman, like, “I’m not the kind of person you want to get involved with.” And I thought, “How great for a woman to sing that.” We hung out a lot and we played music, and that’s part of the joy of working with Keith for me is that I get to really hang out and catch up with him. It’s like being invited to the party. He played everything except for drums and Wurlitzer. I basically played the Wurlitzer, and Steve played drums, and Keith played everything else from the gut-string to the electric to the bass to that Floyd Kramer-sounding piano.
You were in the audience at the ‘86 Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll concert, where Steve Jordan, who produced this album, played with Richards and Chuck Berry, right?
I was a young schoolteacher in St. Louis, and I was there the first night. Cut to 30 years later, and I’m in the studio with these two guys. To me, that’s the American dream, that you can be a girl from a small town, and if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, fantastical things can happen.
Two covers on this album — Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” — really seem to speak to our present moment.
I mean it had everything to do with it. There’s certain things that just resonate with you as being important messages. I am, for better or for worse, really suffering a great deal of sadness, and I cannot help it. I’m raising two boys, and I’m sort of in mourning over what they are not going to get to experience… My kids can’t go out and just ride their bicycles in town. It’s just a different world. And so the more I make music, the more these things are, for me, unavoidable. I can’t not gravitate to the things that resonate in my soul. I get “shut up and sing” all the time, so I’m shutting up and singing, and the songs I’m singing are speaking for me.
It’s wild that you got Eric Clapton, who played on the original “Beware of Darkness,” to play on your version as well.
I contacted Eric and said, “I know you have a history with him, and I don’t know how you would feel about this, but it would mean the world to me if you would play on it.” He said absolutely. And I know he put a lot of time and care into it. At one point he contacted me and said “I’m going to send it to you,” and then he contacted me and said, “I’m not ready yet, I don’t feel like it’s done.” His playing and Johnny Cash’s vocal on this record are the two things I have real difficulty getting through without just being really choked up. Because I feel the divinity in it. I feel the connection to the beyond. I may be talking out of turn, but I feel certain that Eric tapped into something, whether it was his love for George, or I don’t know what it was, but I feel something in it that I think when people hear it, they’ll feel also.
Where does your respect-your-elders ethos come from?
I know a lot of people that are like, “Hey, get off the plane, it’s time for someone else to take a ride.” And I get that. But if people believe in old souls, I think I was born the way I am. Secondly, I grew up around parents who got off playing loud music as much as I do. Great music was always in my house.
You hesitated to add your vocals to Johnny Cash’s, who covered your song “Redemption Day.” Why?
I didn’t want to tamper with it. Hearing him at the very beginning of it just grabbed me in such a deep and sobering way that I didn’t want to put my voice on it. Johnny is untouchable. I had a big conversation with Steve [Jordan] — he’s like, “Dude, you got to put your vocal on it, it’s your record.” I had to sing it a lot of times to figure out how to make it work.
The album track “Don’t” is one of the songs you wrote for a musical based on Barry Levinson’s Diner. First of all, what’s going on with that?
Well it’s been up in a few different incarnations outside of New York, and we’re still kind of working our way towards Broadway. I’m not sure exactly, to be honest, what the status of it is.
And just on a craft level, what did you learn from writing an entire musical’s worth of songs?
Well, I grew up watching all those old movies because they were on TV, everything from Oklahoma to My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Brigadoon, An American in Paris, all that stuff. And I was also a big fan of Burt Bacharach. I got to hear a lot of that when I was growing up. A lot of Dionne Warwick records. My mom loved Burt Bacharach.
With Diner, the thing for me that was the most interesting and the most fun and most challenging was that the movie is mostly a coming-of-age story about these six or seven guys, and the life that revolved around these women, but the women didn’t have that big of roles in the movie. You just were aware of what they represented. And so in writing for the musical, I got to develop the women. And for me, as a woman and looking back at how far we’ve come, it was a lot of fun to get to develop each character for who they represented. The whole experience was extremely exciting for me to create themes and variations on those themes and and big performance songs. It was fun. I wrote five songs in one night between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. because I was on the road and felt like I had a breakthrough. It’s that kind of work, where you kind of hang onto something and ponder it for a while, and then you feel like, okay, wait a minute, I think I’ve got it. That’s not how I usually work, but that’s how that worked.
You have Neil Young on your album, but only as a guitar player.
Yeah, I wanted him to sing, but he’s like, “No, I don’t want to sing. I just want to play.” And I thought, that’s great. We’ll take it. He’s kind of like Bonnie Raitt – as soon as you hear the first note, you know it’s Neil’s guitar. And same with Bonnie, like as soon as she comes in the beginning of “Live Wire.”
Any guests you couldn’t get?
I’m a huge Tom Petty fan, and if he were alive I’m sure I would’ve begged him to be a part of the album, although he probably would’ve declined. He wasn’t really a guy who showed up on other people’s records – unless you were a Wilbury, clearly.
What do you think your post-album future will look like?
I mean, I’m certainly not saying I’m old, and I definitely feel like I still have some great songs in me. But I feel like it’s almost a waste of time for me to have to wait for a whole album to put a song out, especially when I’m writing songs that I feel are bound by an immediacy. But I’m also finding my peace with not knowing what I’m going to do next. And that’s good.