Fame reached Sheryl Crow (shown here) at its own odd pace. It was slow and gradual … and then came in one big whoosh.
“There is no handbook for becoming famous when you’re a really private, small-town person,” she told the Television Critics Association. “It was emotional; it was exhausting.”
She’s still sorting it out in “Sheryl,” an involving documentary that debuts at 9 p.m. Friday (May 6) on Showtime.
Pop-music often has a now-or-never timetable. Fame came to Mick Jagger at 21, Paul McCartney at 20, Christina Aguilera wat 18, Britney Spears at 17.
And Crow? When she won the best-new-artist Grammy she was 33, the age when many stars — from Jesus Christ and Eva Peron to John Belushi and Chris Farley – died. That night, she also won for record of the year and for best female vocalist performance. And then?
“We got on the bus that night and we drove to San Francisco and played the next night like if never happened …. I don’t know if it’s the combination of Puritan work ethic or denial that didn’t let me own it.”
This was a fully formed person – an honor student, track star, majorette, sorority girl, schoolteacher and more – suddenly heading in a new direction. She was also someone who “came in with a lot of melancholy, (who) inherited a lot of mental challenges via my lineage.”
Her roots were pure Americana. She grew up in Kinnett, a town of then 10,000 in southern Missouri. Her dad was a lawyer whose grandfather was a one-term congressman; her mom taught piano.
“My mom is an incredible singer,” said Crow, 60. “Had she not been born when and where she was born, I think she would have been one of the greatest opera singers ever …. She’s 85 now and she still sings. And her voice is richer than it ever has been.”
Crow learned her mom’s skills, said Amy Scott, the film’s director. She’s “classically trained, can sit down and play any instrument and write a song, … do all the arrangements and produce the record.”
She met all the other small-town expectations. In high school, she was in the pep club, the National Honor Society and Future Farmers of America; she won a beauty contest and finished eighth in the low hurdles, in the third division of the state track finals. “I was a good girl,” she said. “I made good grades. I was in lots of clubs and activities. And my parents were very proud of me. And I went to college and I got my degree. And that was the way I was raised and (the way) I thought that you did it.”
But there were also some more-hip influencers. Her parents played rhythm-and-blues music from the Stax label; her sister “turned into a teenager. I got turned onto Joni Mitchell and to Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor and Carole King.” At Missouri University, she sang with the top campus band, Cashmere; after two years teaching music near St Louis and singing commercial jingles, she took a plunge.
“I moved out to Los Angeles and I took my tapes around to every single studio in Los Angeles,” she said. “I was very, very naïve.”
That paid off when she showed up, uninvited, to audition for Michael Jackson’s tour. She was “somebody who didn’t even own a passport, singing with arguably the biggest star in the world, in the largest venues in the world.” She even stepped forward each night for a duet with Jackson. “He was a lovely person, but also … very damaged, obviously.”
Crow sang in the final episode of TV’s “Cop Rock,” made (and then discarded) an album, then began jamming with what was called the Tuesday Music Club. Her new album emerged.
As singles, the label put out “Run, Baby, Run” and “Leaving Las Vegas” – which she heard one day on the radio. “I was driving back from the dentist in my old Volkswagen convertible.” This was a time, she said, when she had a studio apartment and her manager had a storage closet for his office. Suddenly, “I’m screaming, ‘This is me on the radio.’ …. I want to pull my car over and jump up and down.”
Her brother and his friends insisted “All I Wanna Do” was the album’s best song. “That had really kind of been a throwaway song in my mind,” she said. “In fact, I kind of argued for it not to be on the record.”
But it was released and soared to No. 2 on the Billboard chart. “Strong Enough” and “Can’t Cry Any More” followed; the album sold nine million copies.
It was a wild success – except it kept her on the road for 542 performances over two-plus years. Also, her colleagues complained that interviews gave her too much credit for songs she’d co-written. She blamed herself for being too light-hearted in a David Letterman interview.
There would be other problems over the years, including depression. In 2006, she and Lance Armstrong broke off their engagement; later that year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a rare time to reflect. “It wasn’t until … I had to sit by myself, in the quiet of my mind, my body, and my spirit, that I (started) owning all of the glory and the hard work and what’s come.”
Crow now lives in Nashville with her adopted sons, one of whom “feels I’m the meanest mom on the planet” for not allowing social media. She’s still writing (“my best work ever” has been the last decade or so, she feels), still in good voice. “My early days, I drank, I party-smoked, I stayed out late hours. I lived on a tour bus. And you know, my life’s not like that anymore. I’m a more subdued version of my old self. And I get a lot more sleep …. My voice is better than it has ever been.”
She might seem an artifact. (“I get played a lot at Whole Foods or Home Depot; I’m, like, great shopping music.”) But she’s also an ongoing pop-star/rock-star, with a documentary about her first 60 years.