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Sheryl Crow’s Southern Comfort

How the singer beat cancer, heartache and Karl Rove to make her most powerful album

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow attends the Dolce & Gabbana show as part of Milan Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2008/09 on February 21st, 2008.

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Since Sheryl Crow released her sixth album, Wildflower, in late 2005, her world has been turned completely upside down. After Wildflower “tanked” (her word), the singer’s very public engagement to Lance Armstrong collapsed, she was treated for breast cancer, and, in 2007, she became a parent, adopting a baby boy, Wyatt. While these life-altering events inform her new disc, Detours, it was a chance encounter with Karl Rove that really set the tone for the album. “I’m not a confrontational person,” she says, recalling the well-publicized showdown at the White House Correspondents Dinner last April, where Crow confronted Rove about the administration’s response to global warming. Rove was dismissive, telling Crow, “I don’t work for you, I work for the American people.” “To haves someone bring you to a height of your anger and frustration, and to be shot down that way- it was a pivotal moment for me,” she says. “It became the impetus for making this record so political.”

Crow tells the story over burgers at the Bethesda Market & Deli, a roadside joint near her ranch in rural Tennessee. The area is so country that trac­tors fill the parking lot at lunchtime. She’s tanned and toned (she eats only a third of her lunch) and dressed like an upscale cowgirl in jeans and a puffy vest. Crow keeps a tab at the Bethesda and en­gages in friendly banter with the owner, Gary, who explains which local farm today’s burgers came from. But when Rove’s name comes up, she becomes vis­ibly bummed. “I’m shaking even talking about it again,” she says. “I feel like I got his stink on me.” On Detours, she dedi­cates the cheerful “Now That You’re Gone” to Rove – and his former boss isn’t spared either. “I heard about the day that two skyscrapers came down,” she sings on “God Bless This Mess.” “The president spoke words of comfort with tears in his eyes/Then he led us as a nation into a war all based on lies.”

Detours is Crow’s most powerful and most personal record yet, with ra­zor-sharp lyrics that not only address the Bush administration’s lies and the war in Iraq but also the wild path her life has veered on during the past few years. “This album is about taking the listener and shaking them by the shoul­ders and saying, ‘Listen!’ ” says pro­ducer Bill Bottrell, who rejoined Crow in the studio for the first time since her 1993 debut, Tuesday Might Music Club. Crow agrees. “It’s urgent, in-your-face, unedited, barf-it-out-onto-a-page. I didn’t feel the fear that I’ve always felt, that fear of’ ‘What if I can’t write anoth­er song? What if the songs I write are crap?’ None of that.”

The driveway to Sheryl Crow’s Tennessee home, about forty minutes south of Nash­ville, is lined with maple trees, the outer branches gnawed off by the seventeen horses she keeps. Crow and her steeds – which include quarter hors­es and Tennessee walkers — have plenty of room to roam. Her vast parcel of land stretches over grassy hills toward dis­tant tree lines, and she just scooped up another 100-plus acres from a neighbor­ing farm. “In fourth grade, I asked Santa to bring me a horse, and he never brought me one,” she says. “I’m getting back at him.” Crow keeps an apartment in New York but plans to sell her house in L.A. and make the boondocks her home base. She’s clearing space for organic gardens and a chicken coop.

It was during her bout with cancer that Crow decided to buy land in Tennessee, bringing her closer to her family in the Midwest. “I’d had a mammogram and ev­erything looked normal except for a few calcifications,” she says. But after a biop­sy early in 2006 revealed that the cancer was invasive, she underwent a lumpec-tomy and endured thirty-three sessions of radiation treatment. “I’m the poster child for early detection,” she says. With a clean bill of health, she felt fatigued but revitalised —and by the next summer she was ready to get back to work. “I went out on the road and did a tour with John Mayer,” Crow says. “It was the best tour I’ve ever had.” Her days were filled with meditation, napping, healthy eating and exercising (they still are), and every night when she walked onto the stage she felt an immense amount of support. “I was looking into people’s eyes, and they were levitating me with their con­cern,” she says.

Since she was a child growing up in the three-stoplight town of Kennett, Missouri, Crow has always known that she wanted to be a mother. “I had this conventional picture of what it would look like, which is Mom and Dad and then the kids come along,” she says. “But after going through breast cancer, I had to let go of a lot of what I thought life was going to be.” She applied to adopt, and next thing she knew a baby was on the way. She first met her son in the delivery room in April 2007, naming him Wyatt Steven (Wyatt is her paternal grand­parents’ surname, Steven is her younger brother’s). “It was miraclelike,” she says. Then, as she tends to do, she defuses the heavy moment with a quip: “Cooler than that scene in Knocked Up.”

Wyatt, who’s barreling toward his first birthday, is currently the only man sleeping under Crow’s roof. “I believe in love,” she says. “I think everything about love and relationships has to do with timing. I’ve had a lot of energy in the last few months going toward my son. But I’ve also had some really good short relationships in the meantime.”

Crow heads down a staircase lined with her platinum records to her studio. She jokes that the awards and photographs constitute “an homage to my­self,” but most of the photos predate her career: a Gered Mankowits shot of the Stones drinking Cokes in the Sixties; a Henry Dilts shot of Bob Dylan and George Harrison at the Concert for Ban­gladesh in 1971; a bunch of Johnny and June Carter Cash. In the early Nineties, Crow says she felt like “a man without a country,” because musically she felt lit­tle connection to other popular female singers like Suzanne Vega and Paula Abdul. “There weren’t many bands to pair off with,” she says, “so all of a sudden I was opening for Dylan, playing with Clapton, opening for the Stones. Those were the people I aspired to be, so it was a strange blessing to be a man without a country.”

The portable cassette player Crow used to record Detours’ opening track – an ultra-low-fi, grainy tune called “God Bless This Mess” – sits on a large coffee table in her basement. She wrote the song in twenty minutes (lifting the title from a New York Times editorial), fueled by her disgust over the war and the Valerie Plame incident, and still smarting from her encounter with Rove – and the resulting fallout.

The day after the Correspondents Dinner, cable-TV news shows lit up with stories suggesting that Crow’s best idea for saving the environment was limiting toilet-paper use to one square per bathroom visit. Crow believes the story was fed to the media by the administra­tion’s spin team. (She’d just gotten off a three-week tour of colleges with fellow activist Laurie David, engaging students in conversations about the environment, and the “one square” notion was an in­tentionally humorous tree-saving idea.) “Every news outlet, Leno and Letterman were making fun of me,” she says. “With-in twenty-four hours they made me look like a dumbass Hollywood celebrity.”

Crow channeled her inner rage into a fat stack of lyrics. “Out here at the farm, where there’s no semblance of civilization, I felt isolated, safe,” she says. “I was just in my own cocoon, where it was just me and the baby and the guitar and the newspaper and whatever I would allow in, which was very freeing.”

In only forty days, beginning in July, Crow and Bottrell finished Detours in her studio basement, playing all of the instruments – with a little help from Mike Elisondo (who produced Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine and adds bass on Detours) and longtime touring bandmates Jeff Trott (guitar) and Brian MacLeod (drums). For Crow and Bot-trell, it was a sweet homecoming. They first collaborated on Tuesday Night Mu­sic Club, but their friendship and musical partnership were put on hold for nearly fifteen years after a screaming match in New Orleans during early sessions for the follow-up to TNMC. In fact, Crow fell out with most of her TNMC col­laborators, who accused her of taking too much credit for the songwriting on her seven-times-platinum debut, which vaulted Crow from anonymous Michael Jackson backup singer to superstardom.

But the bad mojo is far behind them now, and Crow says she feels something “undeniably precious” about their work together. “We think that there’s a possi­bility that something we write is really gonna mean something to somebody,” she says. “We still dream about writing ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ or ‘Yes­terday.’ ” It took Bottrell and Crow just one night (and two bottles of wine) in the basement studio to craft one of her best songs ever, the apocalyptic “Shine Over Babylon.” Soon, the duo piled up twenty-four new songs, including “Gas­oline”—a sci-fi tale set in 2017, with riots erupting in London, Riyadh and Agra over the price of oil. “I find optimism in the weirdest places,” she says. “What if we woke up one day and said, ‘We’re not gonna be oppressed by inflated gas prices that dictate the way we live our lives’? What if we embraced anarchy and stood up for ourselves and said, ‘Wait! We’re worth more than this!’ I hope for that.”

Despite the heartache it took to get her there, Crow has rediscovered her es­sence in the hills of Tennessee. On “Lul­laby for Wyatt,” Crow sings, “The world could fall apart/But you are my heart, my dear.” She says, “Whether I was in New York or Los Angeles, I’m still the same person I was before I left Missouri. I’m a very God-fearing, connected-to-the-earth, spiritual, family-oriented person. You go through all these periods in your life, experiences where you’re forced to remember who you are. All these jour­neys, and I wind up right back where I was meant to be.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Sheryl Crow

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