An Appreciation of the “All I Wanna Do” Singer

Sheryl Crow, on stage in 1997.
Photo: Simon Ritter/Redferns

In the winter of 2019, Sheryl Crow moved to RCA Studio A in Nashville to record backing vocals and bass lines for the debut album of the Highwomen, the feminist country supergroup made up of her friends Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie. Hemby. At one point during the session, the record’s producer, Dave Cobb, asked Crow to produce a certain type of tone. As Morris later recalled, “Sheryl was playing bass, and Dave was like, ‘I want it to sound like that Sheryl record.'” Except Cobb almost forgot she was. the Sheryl he was talking about. Morris added: “He made a reference to Sheryl as she sat next to him! Then he caught himself, because I’m sure he’s said that before in a recording session: “Oh, that Global Sessions his.’ She’s so cool she was laughing about it. We all laughed at him the rest of the day.

Clearly, Crow’s musical imprint – from its first platinum release in 1993 Tuesday night music club to 1998 The Globe Sessions and far beyond – has become so entrenched in the modern canon that it is now possible to decouple the person from the mood. After all, she’s sold 35 million records worldwide and inspired the sound of everyone from Kacey Musgraves to Brandi Carlile to Waxahatchee with her laid-back, rootsy, lyrically intimate breed of rock and roll. His music was loose and jangly in a world of distortion and grunge; his backing vocals provided huge moments of catharsis long before “The Joke”. And yet how many artists with that kind of center of gravity just show up at the studio to record a few licks here, a background vocal there, happy to stay a heartbeat calmer – or even laugh at being invited to be their own point of reference?

Only Sheryl, whose name also serves as the title of a new documentary from director Amy Scott, which debuts May 6 on Showtime. Sheryl is dedicated to telling the story of Crow’s life and artistic journey, covering the entirety of his career thus far. Crow is one of many female artists from the 90s who are actively reclaimed lately, their stories rewritten through the lens of most other women who are able to truly see the way the misogynistic and ageist media machine has tortured and tarnished their stories. weather. This is essential work and hopefully it has only just begun. But then, Sheryl isn’t really an aggressive fix. This work is done only subtly, as part of an intimate piece of biography told from start to finish, with milestones in between: how Crow left home and a teaching career to pursue. a dream of rock-and-roll success, her time on the road as a backup vocalist for Michael Jackson, her challenges once she began to transition from young rookie to mid-career downturns to a “legacy” act. “At only 60 years old. It’s full of honest confessions about her broken engagement, her battle with cancer, and the sexual harassment she suffered. That’s not to say she’s this or that — which, for an artist not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, most certainly could. It gives us Crow’s story in his own voice and lets us do the rest of the work from there.

Maybe it’s because Crow has already faced a career of recovery – his 1996 second album, Sheryl Ravenexisted to do just that, countering popular narratives that she was merely drawing talent from her set of Tuesday night music club collaborators, an ordeal painfully recounted in Scott’s film. As its beginnings, music club was a huge commercial success that spawned several hit singles when it was released in 1993, a year more focused on grunge or glossed-up, overproduced pop than the laid-back roots rock that Crow served up – both reverent of rock’s past and ahead of the curve (especially when it comes to modern Americana). The misogyny that accompanied it, of course, was a story as old as time: the debate over who actually wrote their songs was often louder than the songs themselves, with male musicians regularly co-writing as well. habit with little control.

Raven wrote Sheryl Raven almost entirely solo and produced it alone, eager to prove himself (this sort of move would become familiar to women, including Taylor Swift, who faced similar criticism before posting her self-penned Speak Now). By the time most women get to their respective corrective career stories, they’ve already corrected their own stories multiple times. It’s enough to wear you down – telling people who you are repeatedly is very hard work, especially when they don’t always believe you.

There’s so much more work to do, though, because we’ve almost always failed to get it right, especially when it comes to women in the ’90s – a time when we were supposed to make some sort of vague “progress” towards gender parity, even if the data, or the media treatment, told us otherwise. We were wrong about Fiona Apple and the famous speech she gave at the MTV Video Music Awards where she said the world of celebrity culture was ‘bullshit’ – it was more comfortable to dismiss her as an ungrateful bitch than as a generational artist in the making offering crucial critique of the hand that nurtured her. We were wrong about Alanis Morissette, whom the press liked to position as a puppet of producer Glen Ballard (which we also did with Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Jewel, and Shania Twain and their respective male partners or collaborators, for n to name just a few). ). And boy, were we wrong about Janet Jackson, recently the subject of her own authorized documentary, and even in denial of the sheer racism that drove our desire to alter her narrative and tone down both her agency and his star power. We were so wrong that the popular You are wrong about The podcast has touched on many equally slandered and misunderstood women in its episodes.

We don’t often include Crow in this conversation, because it’s not as straightforward or sexy in the way she’s been left out or misunderstood – and Crow, for the most part, seems comfortable keeping it sort of of low-key existence, using his studio and skills in Nashville as a hub for the next generation (Musgraves made golden hour there, and Crow recently offered vocals on a track from Lucius’ new album). It’s not like she’s been torn in the tabloids like Britney Spears or Jackson were – although she wasn’t exactly privy to amazing language either, and it’s easy enough to find her qualified. of “hot alterna-chick” or even “boring” if you dig deep enough in the newspaper archives. She’s still playing and even releasing new music. His last album, 2019 Son, was a kind of humble but flag-carrying project where she tied her work to the future and rooted it in her contemporaries. There’s no misnomer or misconception haunting her at this point; she’s just taken for granted and not given enough credit for the sound she created (see: that absence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

Crow was, and is, the kind of artist that rock purists could salivate at if they worked a little harder – a true gear junkie, a multi-instrumentalist, a malleable studio partner, a thoughtful lyricist. Not to mention all those hits, which drew listeners into complex stories of misfits or outcasts or unfussy people making unfussy mistakes through unforgettable melodies: “All I Wanna Do”, “Strong Enough”, “If It Makes You Happy”, “Soak Sunrise. Like Sheryl points out, she had a fan of Prince, as well as the Rolling Stones. But don’t Google “rock star” if you don’t want to be instantly presented with a photo gallery of almost all-male, almost all-white artists, none of whom include her.

This is where the most important work of Sheryl enters however: It presents Crow as a rock star, indisputably. Laura Dern, a friend and former housemate of Crow’s, repeatedly refers to her as such in the film. It shouldn’t be revolutionary. She is, of course, a rock star, and women have known that for two decades. But as mean as we are about giving this title to female artists, we’re just as mean about letting them keep it as they get older. And Sheryl is determined to help him keep it.

The contrast to the likes of Keith Richards, a prominent face in the documentary, seems intentional – both are “legacy” performers, but only one currently plays in stadiums. Older male artists face a different trajectory, especially rock stars, and those from the ’90s — Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, for starters — retain a kind of impervious sanctity. “There’s kind of a weird thing that happens when you become a ‘legacy artist’. It’s kind of a sideways compliment,” Crow says in the film. “It’s like, okay, you resisted time-tested, but you’re that old and you just haven’t left.” She doesn’t say there’s an even deeper layer here for women, though she doesn’t have to : Sheryl it works subtly.

There is a scene in Sheryl from Bonnaroo in 2018, where Crow and his band are invited to play the music festival in an afternoon slot. As she points out in the film, most of the audience was younger than her songs, and she feared walking into an empty field. But just when it was time for his set, the crowds arrived, waves of fans packed in shoulder to shoulder, oceans deep and knowing every song, roaring to “If It Makes You Happy.” Crow had also been a soundtrack to their lives, somehow, just as much a rock star as anyone else. Not a legacy, not a bygone moment, not a relic. But an intertwined fiber: a reminder that it’s more important than ever to tilt your head back and moan to a song that makes you feel alive.

“There’s something liberating about it,” Crow says in Sherylhis hand forming a defiant fist, “about raising your voice.”

About Michael Terry

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