Welcome to The Argument, Stereogum’s new regular feature where Tom Breihan and Claire Lobenfeld discuss music topics in and out of the ’Gum-sphere. For its first installment, they revisit Sheryl Crow’s catalog on the heels of the release of her new country album Feels Like Home and the 20th anniversary of her debut Tuesday Night Music Club.
TOM: So Scott Lapatine, our fearless leader, has given us the idea to go in on the career and legacy of one Sheryl Crow of Kennett, Missouri. Her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club turned 20 last month, and her new country album Feels Like Home will debut in Billboard’s top 10 week. And as Scott points out: there’s a weird level of synchronicity between Crow and indie rock. Indie people have covered her songs: HAIM, Screaming Females, Oxes with Will Oldham, Joanna Newsom, and Robin Pecknold. She also had Liz Phair sing on a #1 song and showed up pre-fame as a big-haired backup singer on that Michael Jackson HBO special that I watched one billion times. (That last one isn’t indie, but it is awesome.)
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t feel like indie connects are necessary when we’re talking about Sheryl Crow. I don’t need indie rock to tell me Sheryl Crow is awesome. I know Sheryl Crow is awesome. (Also, that Screaming Females cover, much as I love them, is butt, and an Oxes cover doesn’t say too much about anything; I’ve seen those dudes cover the Vengaboys live before. [And yes, that was awesome.])
Here’s my thing about Sheryl Crow: I think of her, more or less, as a ’90s edition of Tom Petty: A middle-of-the-road rock songwriter who wasn’t necessarily a trailblazer or a deep soul but who cranked out irresistible radio-rock nuggets like nobody’s business. Things were messy in the ’90s, so she got all caught up in things like alt-rock radio and the Lilith Fair when maybe she would’ve just been allowed to be a kickass rock star in previous eras. And maybe that’s hurt her reputation a bit. But if you throw on The Very Best Of Sheryl Crow, which is one of my undying road-trip go-tos, you will hear just so much greatness. “If It Makes You Happy”! “Everyday Is A Winding Road”! “Strong Enough”! These might be songs that have thrummed in the background of your life for years, songs you didn’t even realize you loved, and then you find yourself singing along with them at top volume with windows down. She is a sneaky great, and she deserves to be remembered that way.
Also, my aunt was sorority sisters with her, a senior when Crow was a freshman, and she reports that Crow was “really nice.” You got that exclusive here, folks!
But Claire, what’s your take on Sheryl Crow?
CLAIRE: Well-said, Tom. But this has been a bit of a weird journey for me. When Scott suggested this, I revisited my favorite parts of Crow’s catalogue — primarily the insane triptych of “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Strong Enough,” and “Can’t Cry Anymore” from Tuesday Night Music Club, all of which I was pretty obsessed with after my dad bought it for me on cassette during one of our Sunday Tower Records trips (I was probably eight), but what I didn’t think about was that “All I Wanna Do” would be an awesome anachronism for me and how much that song kind of informed my adult life. It wasn’t until I revisited it that this flood of feelings I experienced as a kid watching that video, hearing that song, definitely not fully understanding what is a “good beer buzz early in the morning,” but the notion of “free-spiritedness” somehow seeping its way into my brain. And what grown-up women in my life, at the time, the song had reminded me of, all of whom were single, seemingly cool but also “old,” and that being an adult wasn’t as buttoned-up as I had previously imagined to me. What an impact! And goddamn, “A Change Would Do You Good” is total fire. So, I would agree with you about Tom Petty, but I would give him more credit than you have, especially when he and the Heartbreakers are responsible for insane jams like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “American GIrl,” and “Free Fallin’.”
But I hadn’t really thought about S. Crow that much until now, tabloid-fodder aside. She really lost the thread for me with “Soak Up The Sun.” In her defense, by 2002, if it wasn’t in the zone of Blonde Redhead or Cam’ron, I really didn’t care, so I found her pop switch particularly offensive (same goes for Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I?” and Jewel’s “Intuition”). I pushed her out of my head for a few years, the truth of her value erased from my memory. As you stated before, “These might be songs that have thrummed in the background of your life for years, songs you didn’t even realize you loved, and then find yourself singing along with them at top volume with windows down.” It was hearing “Strong Enough” being blasted by disgruntled neighbors who hated our late night parties in this punk-frat (no better way to put it) that I used to hang out at in college. I think the two girls in the apartment in between the two floors we co-habitated on were finally pissed at us. But instead of driving anyone to the brink of anger, as I assume they planned to, we were all like, “Holy shit, this song rules” and proceeded to play it on repeat until a few of the dudes learned how to play it on guitar. When HAIM covered it, it made me love those girls even more. It’s almost like you’re all in on a secret.
And she’s definitely infused that secret bad assery into her new album Feels Like Home. I am not a country expert by any means. You can find more than one Patsy Cline box set in my apartment and Wayne Hancock’s “Cold Lonesome Wind” is one of my all-time favorite songs — albeit, off the strength of a Rose McGowan movie — so I am not entirely sure where this measures on the pop-country scale. Much of it feels like a “Sun”-informed pop album with hokey notions of country flavor, particularly lyrically (“looks like the whole dang town’s / in the mood for a beer / it ain’t the weekend / it ain’t even 2-for-1 night / guess we’re just drawn to / that heavenly neon light” — dog, I know you like drinking, but this sounds almost pandering). “Gunpowder & Lead,” this is not. But again, I don’t really know where in the genre this falls.
I know you like Miranda Lambert — and I’m sorry if I’m being reductive, but she’s the one I’d be trying to ether if I were coming into the mainstream country landscape. Have you checked out Home at all? Where do you think Sheryl fits in the country scene? And do you think this record’s any good?
TOM: Claire, please do not think for a second that I am shoveling shit on the good Tom Petty name. Petty is my dude, and if I think Sheryl Crow is cut from the same mold, that doesn’t mean I believe she’s his equal. As much fire as there is on her greatest hits album, it’s still not up to the level of fire on his greatest-hits. Also, can we talk about “Picture” for a second? Because the Kid Rock duet “Picture,” possibly Crow’s biggest hit of this millennium, is the song that first brought her (and, to a lesser extent, Kid Rock) to country radio, which is where she’s now attempting to build her house. And it’s an absolutely dead-on classic-rock road-crust duet, the closest thing she has to a “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” (This makes Kid Rock her Stevie Nicks, which is maybe another conversation altogether.)
But I love your “All I Wanna Do” story, which got me thinking about the Liz Phair connection again. When Phair and Crow joined forces on “Soak Up the Sun” — and I was not too into Dipset to sleep on that song, which, to my ears, fits right in with everything she’d been doing — it made sense. That didn’t mean Sheryl was a secret indie rocker, though; it mostly fit with the quiet jukebox-queen classic-rock streak that Phair had in her music from the very beginning. And now that I think about it, the barroom scene in “All I Wanna Do” isn’t that far away from the one in Phair’s “Polyester Bride.” If these two had worked together more, maybe Crow wouldn’t be chasing that Darius Rucker country-crossover money and Phair wouldn’t have disappearing into the cable-TV original-score netherworld. (Also, I watched that video a whole lot of times in the punk-frat where I spent my last two college years, and my housemates complained less than they did when I was watching the “Bad Boy For Life” video.)
But so the country album! It’s good. It’s not great. And it’s really the only thing for Sheryl to do if she doesn’t want to live on the state-fair circuit for the rest of her creative life (or to sign to Merge or whatever). Most of the stuff that always made Crow great — the plainspoken conversational tough-chick lyrics, the greasy road-house arrangements, the unshowy big notes, the entire idea of laid-back car-radio singalongs — has disappeared from whatever remains of mainstream rock, and it’s found a place in pop-country. Also, a wise person (possibly a YouTube commenter; I forget) said this of Nelly’s guest verse on Florida Georgia Line’s massive summer jam “Cruise”: Nelly didn’t go country; he’s from St. Louis, so he was always country. Crow is from the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. She was always country, too. And if it makes her happy, it can’t be that bad.
In any case, pop-country (non-Taylor division, anyway) is in a rough place right now, taken over by soft-batch Ken dolls like Luke Bryan. Its greatest signs of hope are steely-eyed real-talking spitfires like Miranda Lambert and Kasey Musgraves. And on Feels Like Home, Crow plays a sort of cool older-cousin to ladies like that, and it works reasonably well. But the extreme compression and shiny production of current Nashville product doesn’t quite mesh with Crow, and I wish she could just go straight to Tom Petty’s arena-stomping elder-statesman status. Sadly, that winding road seems to be closed to female veterans. Maybe there was something to that Lilith Fair thing after all, and we shouldn’t have made fun of it just because Meredith Brooks.
CLAIRE: Maybe Lilith Fair was the riot grrl of arena rock and too many people (myself, included) get hives from the hippie craft fair vibes, so it never hit right. I do remember feeling utterly weirded out by patchouli and crochet tops en masse when I went in 1998. But, sharp as my memory can be, I couldn’t tell everyone who was on the roster at that year’s Jones Beach edition. Sarah McLachlan, natch, as she was H.B.I.C. of the whole, and Missy Elliott, who I will never forget, particularly because she wore all the costumes from every Supa Dupa Fly video, but mostly Natalie Merchant. I don’t have a single clue what she’s doing now, but if the lane stayed open, I think she could tear the roof off of Madison Square Garden, peasant skirt sweeping across the same stage I’ve seen people from Paul McCartney to Kanye West destroy.
But there are certainly not enough women who have transcended that zone. It’s lowkey why I’m disappointed to see someone like Miley Cyrus eschew her familial legacy (that of her godmother Dolly Parton, not of her Achey Breaky Dad) for Rihanna rejects. For a long time, I was Miley 2.0 would also be Taylor Swift ether ’cos her woe-is-me judginess is so irksome to me (own your badness, Taylor!! You will meet way cooler dudes, trust), but I’d rather just see them in the country-imbued Bey-Katy-Rihanna zone together. And you know what? There’s a song on the final Hannah Montana album called “Need A Little Love” and it features Sheryl Crow. The lady’s got reach. S may not have a direct influence on Taylor, but you can’t tell me there isn’t a little bit of “All I Wanna Do” in “22″ or the spirit of “Can’t Cry Anymore” in “Trouble,” right?