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We’re Taking Sheryl Crow for Granted

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

In the winter of 2019, Sheryl Crow dropped by RCA Studio A in Nashville to record background 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 kind of tone. As Morris later recalled, “Sheryl was playing bass, and Dave was like, ‘I want it to be like the sound on that Sheryl record.’” Except Cobb nearly forgot she was the Sheryl he was talking about. Added Morris, “He referenced Sheryl while she was sitting next to him! Then he caught himself, because I’m sure he’s said that before in a recording session: ‘Oh, that Globe Sessions sound.’ She’s just so cool that she was laughing about it. We all made fun of him the rest of the day.”

Clearly, the musical imprint of Crow — from her 1993 debut platinum release Tuesday Night Music Club to 1998’s The Globe Sessions and well beyond — has become so embedded in the modern canon that it’s now possible to disassociate the person from the vibe. 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 relaxed, rootsy, and lyrically intimate breed of rock and roll. Her music was loose and jangly in a world of distortion and grunge; her choruses provided huge moments of catharsis in a time long before “The Joke.” And yet, how many artists with that kind of gravitational center just show up at the studio to record a few licks here, a background vocal there, happy to remain a quieter heartbeat — or even laugh about being asked to be their own reference point?

Only Sheryl, whose name doubles as the title of a new documentary from director Amy Scott, debuting May 6 on Showtime. Sheryl is dedicated to telling the life story and artistic journey of Crow, tackling the full arc of her career thus far. Crow is one of many female artists of the ’90s who are being actively reclaimed lately, their histories rewritten through the lens of mostly other womean who are able to truly see the ways that the misogynistic, ageist media machine has tortured and tarnished their stories over time. This is essential work, and hopefully only just getting started. But then, Sheryl is not really an aggressive corrective. That work is done only subtly, as part of an intimate piece of a biography told from beginning to end, with major milestones in between: how Crow left home and a career as a teacher to pursue a dream of rock-and-roll success, her time on the road as a backup singer for Michael Jackson, her challenges once she began to transition from youthful newbie to mid-career slowdowns to “legacy” act at only 60 years old. It’s full of honest confessions about her broken engagements, her bout with cancer, and the sexual harassment she’s experienced. It doesn’t argue that she’s this or that — which, for an artist not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it most certainly could. It gives us Crow’s story in her own voice and lets us do the rest of the work from there.

Maybe it’s because Crow has already faced a career of reclaiming herself — her 1996 sophomore album, Sheryl Crow, existed to do just that, countering popular narratives that she was just mooching talent from her set of Tuesday Night Music Club collaborators, an ordeal painfully told in Scott’s film. As her debut, Music Club was a massive commercial success that spawned multiple hit singles when it was released in 1993, a year more focused on grunge or glossed, overproduced pop than the relaxed roots rock Crow was serving — at once reverential of rock’s past and ahead of the curve (especially as far as modern Americana is concerned). The misogyny that accompanied it, of course, was a tale as old as time: The debate about who actually wrote her songs was often louder than the songs themselves, while male musicians routinely co-wrote as custom with little scrutiny at all.

Crow wrote Sheryl Crow almost entirely solo and produced it alone, eager to prove herself (this kind of move would become familiar to women, including Taylor Swift, who sustained similar criticism before releasing her self-written Speak Now). By the time most women get to their respective corrective career tales, they’ve already been correcting their own narratives many times over. It’s enough to exhaust you out of it — telling people who you are repeatedly is a very particular sort of hard work, especially when they don’t always believe you.

There is so much more work to be done, though, because we almost always failed to get it right when it came to the women of the ’90s — a period when we were supposed to be making some sort of vague “progress” toward gender parity, even if the data, or 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 declared that the world of celebrity culture was “bullshit” — it was more comfortable to dismiss her as an ungrateful bitch than a generational artist in the making offering a crucial critique of the hand that fed her. We were wrong about Alanis Morissette, whom the press loved 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, to mention only a few). And boy, were we wrong about Janet Jackson, recently the subject of her own authorized documentary, and even in denial about the sheer racism that motivated our desire to alter her narrative and dim both her agency and star power. We were so wrong that the popular You’re Wrong About podcast tackled many similarly maligned and misunderstood women in its episodes.

We don’t often include Crow in this conversation, because it’s not quite so cut-and-dried or sexy in how she’s been left out or misunderstood — and Crow, for the most part, seems comfortable to keep a low-key sort of existence, using her studio and skills in Nashville as a hub for the next generation (Musgraves made Golden Hour there, and Crow recently offered vocals to a track on the new Lucius album). It’s not as if she was ripped apart in the tabloids the way Britney Spears or Jackson was — though she wasn’t exactly privy to amazing language, either, and it’s quite easy to find her being referred to as a “hot alterna-chick” or even “annoying” if you dig far enough in newspaper archives. She’s still performing and even releasing new music. Her last album, 2019’s Threads, was a humble yet flag-planting sort of project where she tied her work to the future and rooted it in her contemporaries. There’s not some big misnomer or misconception that haunts her at this point; she’s just simply taken for granted and not nearly credited enough for the sound that 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 over if they worked a little harder — a true gear junkie, a multi-instrumentalist, a malleable partner in the studio, a thoughtful lyricist. Not to mention all those hits, which brought listeners along on 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 Up the Sun.” As Sheryl points out, she had a fan in 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 entirely male, almost entirely white artists, none of which include her.

This is where the most important work of Sheryl comes in, though: It presents Crow as a rock star, indisputably. Laura Dern, a friend and onetime roommate of Crow’s, repeatedly refers to her as such in the film. This shouldn’t be revolutionary. She is, of course, a rock star, and women have known this for two decades. But as unkind as we are about doling this title out to female artists, we are equally as unkind about letting them keep it as they age. And Sheryl is dead set on helping her keep it.

The contrast with the likes of Keith Richards, a prominent face in the documentary, feels intentional — both are “legacy” artists, but only one is currently playing stadiums. Older male artists face a different trajectory, particularly rock stars, and ones from the ’90s — Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, for starters — retain a sort of impermeable sainthood. “There’s sort of a weird thing that happens when you become a ‘legacy artist.’ It’s sort of a sideways compliment,” Crow says in the film. “It’s like, okay, you’ve stood the test of time, but also you’re old and just haven’t gone away.” She doesn’t say that there is an even deeper layer here for women, though she doesn’t have to: Sheryl does that work subtly.

There’s a scene in Sheryl from Bonnaroo in 2018, where Crow and her 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 was nervous that she might be walking out to an empty field. But just as it was time for her set, the crowds rolled in, waves of packed-in fans shoulder to shoulder, oceans deep and knowing every song, roaring along to “If It Makes You Happy.” Crow had been a soundtrack to their lives too, somehow, just as much of a rock star as anyone else. Not a legacy, not a moment passed, not a relic. But a fiber, interwoven: a reminder that it’s more important than ever to tilt your head back and wail along to a song that makes you feel alive.

“There is something liberating,” Crow says in Sheryl, her hand forming into a defiant fist, “about lifting your voice.”

We’re Taking Sheryl Crow for Granted