Sheryl Crow, Finally 'Home' in the Country World, Tells It Like It Is: Music Is 'Ageist' (Q&A)

The Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, cancer survivor and mom reflects on a strained relationship with her former label and looks ahead to strengthening her Nashville roots.

A message to Sheryl Crow’s longtime fans in the rock world: If country makes her happy, it can’t be that bad.

And for most it won’t be, since crossover between the genres has lately reached a peak not seen since the SoCal country-rock boom of the early 1970s. Not that many people blinked when Crow announced that she’d signed with Warner Nashville, since she’d made her home in Tennessee for years and was as likely to be seen dueting with Vince Gill as with Mick Jagger. Her first album directed toward the format, Feels Like Home, debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 3 on the country albums chart, fronted by a single, “Easy,” that climbed to No. 17 on the Country Airplay chart.

Does Crow’s crossover represent the emerging dominance of country or the fading away of mainstream rock? After all, new rock stars haven't been minted, in the classic sense, since the mid-1990s, when Crow and Dave Matthews snuck under the wire before the scene fragmented completely. Fortunately, the transition to a genre with more user loyalty has come naturally for someone who’s flirted with country sounds since day one. But whether she can find a permanent toehold on a radio format that currently skews almost exclusively toward young hunks like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean remains to be seen. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Crow as she revisited her old L.A. stomping grounds this month to appear on The Tonight Show.

I’ve been asking you about the prospect of making a country album since at least the turn of the century, and you always said you'd do it someday. Why so long in the gestation, and why now?

I don’t mean to at all denigrate my relationship with Interscope. But there were numerous occasions when I would finish the cycle of a record and go in and say, “I would love to make a country record.” And they didn’t have a country division, nor were they really interested in that. Nor were they really interested that much in what I was doing -- at which point I was released from my obligation there. I was living in Nashville and decided I was going to make the record I wanted to make, and then we shopped it. I made it without a label at all. It was the most liberating thing ever.

You said around the time of releasing Wildflower in 2005 that you’d started to make a country album and then abandoned it.

Mm-hmm. I had a lot of discouragement. It was such a bad word. When I started making the Wildflower record, I just didn’t have any support really for it. And all the while, I kept thinking everything I had done to that point was sort of an offshoot of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou [Harris] and even [the country-rock side of the Stones’] Exile on Main Street. So timing-wise, it just worked out that this was the best time to do it. I had a ton of support in Nashville. I had a ton of support from artists and songwriters there saying, "When are you going to make a record for the format you belong to?" So it just seemed like all the stars lined up. But, all that to say, we’ll see if it takes off.

Detours in 2008 was one of your best and most personal albums. [The subject matter included her breast cancer diagnosis and breakup with Lance Armstrong, as well as pointed social commentary.] But somehow it didn’t get much attention.

On that record, I had been through an immense amount of personal transformation, as well as there being a lot going on socio-politically. And that record was a real exercise in expression for me. But it didn’t really belong anywhere. When I took it to the label, I remember Jimmy [Iovine] saying, “There’s some beautiful stuff on here, but nobody wants to hear about it. And nobody wants to hear songs about the war, the environment or cancer.” They were heavily involved in American Idol. I just thought, “You have to be wrong -- people want to hear about these things!” He might have been right. But also I know they didn’t really put too much into promoting it. And my knee-jerk to that was, okay, I just want to go have fun, so I made a record of soul music with some friends [100 Miles from Memphis]. And there were a couple of years in in there where I was just like, “Well, what am I doing?” So with this record, there’s a real sense of returning to home.

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I’m thinking that “Sheryl Crow Visits Music Row” is probably not a hard sell at most of the Nashville labels.

I don’t think so. We had a lot of interest, and I think the main thing was “Is she legit? Is she gonna stay at country?” That was one thing. And then the other thing is, music in general is ageist. There are mostly just 30 and under at radio anymore. And I‘ve been really lucky, because “Easy” is in the top 20 on the charts. But my favorite song on the record is the one I wrote with Brad [Paisley], “Waterproof Mascara,” which is definitely a throwback to '60s and '70s country, the period that I love the most -- the Burrito Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly [Parton], Emmy, Jessi Colter -- and people are saying it’ll never get played at country because it’s too country. So I’d love to see that break the barriers. And I’d love to see women start singing about issues that are distinctly female.

You’ve entered country at a time when there are suddenly a lot of stories about the sexist imbalance in the format. A few weeks ago, Carrie Underwood was the only female in the top 20. And the Nashville Scene did a story about how nearly all those songs had the same theme, about getting your girl and going down a back road and…

…getting your groove on. And girls in cutoffs, and trucks.

There;s an old maxim about country, that it is a storyteller’s medium. But people are noticing that every song on the radio now seems to be telling the same story, and it’s about a dude and his girl and his pickup truck. We hope this doesn’t mean you picked the wrong time to make your move.

I think when there’s such an overabundance of the same thing, surely there’ll be some sort of backlash. There’s great stuff in every format and there’s really bad stuff at every format, and that historically has been the truth. So I can’t let myself in with the statement that Tom Petty said [in Rolling Stone: “I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have…. Most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle '80s where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos”], because I think there is really great stuff out there. The Tom Petty comment hit so many people so hard, because so many people have idolized him in the country world…. But it’s [also] like, I can say my mom’s fat but you can’t.

I can’t really be critical of the country format, because I’m the newbie there. I’m the new kid at school, so I can’t really walk into the school and say, “Wow, they have the worst math problem here.” It doesn’t really work like that. But I’m curious what other people are saying. I have to admit, sometimes I can’t tell it apart. I’d just like to see more than three women get played at radio. And that’s not just because I’m a woman. I just feel like, gosh, a huge population of record buyers are women. Why aren’t there women getting played at radio? Why aren’t there more female program directors? There’s, like, two! I don’t understand it. I’m a huge fan of Ashley Monroe; she’s got songs on that record I think are stupefying. There are a lot of great girls out there.

You’ve lived in Nashville since 2008, and you did work primarily with mainstream country hitmakers on this album.

I’ve never really had that much of a success writing with other writers, so to sit down and write with Nashville writers was terrifying but ultimately a great experience. I don’t feel like I watered it down because I wrote with more people. I feel like I covered my bases.

With pretty much every young country artist I’ve ever interviewed, if I ask their favorite female singers, it’s you first, and then Dolly and Loretta Lynn come at some point after that.

Amazing. I had a lot of support making this record. Brad came to me after I sang with Miranda [Lambert] and Loretta on the CMAs, and I had recorded something else that was very country in his recording studio. He said, “You need to make a record for the format you belong to. If your songs were out now, they would definitely be formatted this way. You just have to make your stories more concise and turn your vocal up.” That was his thing.

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Turn your vocal up?

Yes. He was like, “In pop music, they just bury the vocal.” There’s definitely truth to that, and there’s truth to the fact that you can get away with a lot writing pop songs or rock songs. Lyrically, you can take a lot of artistic liberty in writing things that mean something to you that don’t necessarily resonate [literally] with people, but they think there’s something mysterious and cool about it. So it was kind of a good teaching moment for me, to sit down with some writers and have people say, “Okay…but I think if you said it like this, it wouldn’t be quite so artsy.”

You’ve definitely had your art-pop side, lyrically. On this album, there’s no “Benny Goodman’s corset” or “playing for mosquitos” [to quote the more elliptical parts of “If It Makes You Happy”].

See, that all makes perfect sense to me! [Laughs] Brad said, “What in the world is ‘My friend the communist holds meetings in his RV?'” [quoting “Soak Up the Sun”]. I said, “That means I hung out with Steve Earle. What do you think it means?” Steve Earle is not a communist, but it just was colorful to me that his e-mail address refers to something that’s a nickname for communism.

You have two extremely poignant songs on this album about tough emotions that come with being a working and/or single mother.

I am my age. I’ve lived nine lives. And I didn’t want to write a record for a bunch of kids. I mean, I’d love kids to love the record. But I feel like Loretta basically opened up the doors for all of us to write about anything. There were so many women like her and Tammy [Wynette] that actually sang about what it was like to be a woman. I just wanted to write a record that addressed not being just a young girl who’s a spitfire and hates her boyfriend. My kids go to school now and I know a lot of young single moms, so it’s not like that’s exclusive to girls that are my age. And the idea of “Stay at Home Mother,” that to a certain extent applies to men too, because it’s just the idea that you miss out on so much when you have to work. But that’s the reality of life: It’s full of compromise and loss and disappointment and gratitude and all these different emotions that can still be incorporated into a story. I wanted to write some of those songs because I felt like those stories aren’t necessarily getting told so much.

You’re a single mom, but you do take your kids on the road with you a lot. So at least the sadness of “Stay at Home Mother,” about a woman who has to travel for business without her children, isn’t your story all year long.

It’s not. But my 6-year-old is in kindergarten now, and he’s going back on Thursday and I’m not getting home till Sunday morning. And it’s hard to explain to him why he can’t come -- “We’re gonna fly for three days; we don’t have a tour bus; you’d miss a lot of school; your school picture is on Thursday; you have a field trip on Friday.” He’s like, "When are you coming home?" And I say, “Three sleeps, I promise.” It reminds me of the first time my dad heard “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and he just got really emotional about it. I’m experiencing that. I’m going to turn around and my kids will be in high school. It’ll fly.

Sometimes when pop or rock performers have crossed over to country, they’ve described being practically asked to sign a loyalty oath, so that people can feel confident they aren’t just dabbling or carpetbagging. Have you experienced any of that?

No, and actually I’ve been sort of surprised that there’s been so many questions about it. Because I feel like songs like “If It Makes You Happy” and “Strong Enough” [were practically country]…. God knows “All I Wanna Do” had a pedal steel on it from the first beat to the last beat.

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It’s not left field.

It’s not left field. But I’m gonna keep making the music that I love to make, and there will be a time when I don’t get played at radio. There just will be, because that’s just the reality of life. But it doesn’t mean I’m not gonna write and sing anymore. I look at Emmylou and I think, what a great life. For me, she’s a historical person. She and Willie [Nelson] are like matriarch and patriarch of the format. They transcend it. But more than that, they’re musicians. They’ve written songs that have been in every format. That’s what I’m much more interested in than proving myself to a radio programmer. I want to write songs that resonate with people, and the songs I care about most will never be heard at radio anyway. That’s the way it’s always been, on all of my records. There have been songs I felt were so important that never got played, and people that are fans know those songs.

I mean, I’m happy that Warner Nashville believes in me and gives me a home, and if at one point they don’t believe in me, I’ll still be living in Nashville and singing with Willie and Vince and the people that I love. I hope radio programmers believe me, but it won't affect whether I keep doing this kind of music, or any kind of music.

Most rock fans are open to country, because nobody’s cooler than Emmylou. But there may be some old fans who hear that you sing about getting “shit-faced” on this album [in the song “Drinking”] and think, “Has she gone redneck on us?”

Yeah, well, “shit-faced” to me sounds like “If It Makes You Happy.” Somebody said to me the other day, “You have a song about smoking pot and getting drunk.” It seems like a continuation to me. It never occurred to me that “shit-faced” would be considered country when we’ve said worse than that! [Laughs]

But obviously the angle here is “Sheryl Crow goes country,” and there may be some in your fanbase whom that doesn’t sit well with, whether you always had a Gram Parsons influence or not.

Yeah, it’s always gonna be a bad word with some people -- and then there’s also gonna be a huge swatch of my fan base that already moved over to country because it’s where you hear songs. I think at pop, you just don’t hear traditional songwriting anymore. And as far as rock and roll’s concerned, I don’t know where you hear that. I’m out of it. I love what fun. does, and I love Mumford & Sons and bands like that, that are folk-rock. But that also isn’t what I do…I can’t keep doing the same thing exactly every time in a formulaic way so that people will stick with me. But I can at least stay interested in always chasing the next great song. That’s the great motivator for me: I hear a song and think, “God, I wish I would have written that.”

Twitter: @chriswillman