Hello, my name is Corbin Reiff. I’m a music writer based out of Seattle and the author of ‘Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell.’ Welcome to my new monthly column The Offramp!
In this space, I’ll chat with and write about some of the best and brightest minds in the music world today about a wide range of different and fascinating topics from new albums, old masterpieces, legendary tours, and the future of music itself. Thanks for coming along for the ride. At the very least, I promise the soundtrack won’t suck!
More than just a generational songwriter, more than a generous and thoughtful collaborator, more than just about anything else in fact, Sheryl Crow is a one-of-a-kind rock and roll frontwoman. Over the last three decades, the Missouri-native has fired up crowds from Memphis to Madrid bringing to life her singular collection of hits and deep cuts, backed by her crack band of heavy-hitting headhunters. To be in the audience for a Sheryl Crow show is to enjoy a night of music you’re liable to remember forever. To be on the bill for a Sheryl Crow show is to risk being completely, and utterly upstaged by one of the best to ever do it. Every night is a new chance to achieve transcendence.
“I love what Bob Dylan said about recording,” Crow told SPIN over the phone. “You record a song, then you go out on the road and for the rest of your life, you’re looking for the perfect version of that song. You don’t really even know what the song is when you’re recording in the studio, unless you’ve gone out and played it live and had it sort of unfold for you with all the molecular energy going in the room.”
While most of us spent the last year and a half hunkered down, yearning for a return to in-person, live entertainment, Crow utilized the time to assemble the greatest exhibit yet of her unmatched performance powers; a new record album titled Live at The Ryman and More. The behemoth, 27-track collection — about 10 songs larger than her typical set — was largely recorded in Nashville in 2019, just after she released what she purports to be her final, studio album Threads. It’s a thrilling document filled with searing and emotive takes on her most beloved material, along with a wide range of guest appearances from the likes of Stevie Nicks, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Lucius, and Emmylou Harris to name just a few.
“We had some amazing experiences in the course of that really short Threads tour. And one of them was the Newport Folk Festival and one of them was being able to play at the Ace Theater,” Crow said. “I spent 22 years of my life living in L.A. and I have amazing memories there and also great friends who still live there. One of those great friends — not only a great friend, but a hero of mine — is Stevie Nicks. To be able to collaborate with her there, it just felt like it needed to be a part of the record.”
More than just a live record, however, Live at the Ryman and More is an expansive and immediate portrait of Crow’s incredible, winding career. It’s a musical memoir, with Frampton Comes Alive style crowd participation. From Tuesday Night Music Club to Threads, and “If It Makes You Happy” to “All I Wanna Do,” the full gamut of Crow’s impressive songwriting and impeccable musicianship on full display in this two-and-a-half-hour set in the Mother Church of Country Music.
“I do believe that the physical registers, just like with a guitar in the wood,” Crow said. “Whoever has held a guitar next to their body and has played and their soul has been a part of that guitar making it sounds. That’s how the Ryman is. Everybody that has ever stood on that stage has left something in that room.”
Recently, SPIN had the opportunity to talk to her about some of the best and worst concert memories – spoiler, Woodstock ’99 doesn’t exactly hold a warm place in her heart — what it’s like to pick Bob Dylan’s brain for advice, her love of the Milwaukee Bucks, and that time she made her parents cry while singing with Pavarotti in Italy…
SPIN: First and foremost, congratulations again on the Bucks NBA Championship win. It seems like you and your family had a blast watching the ride through the Finals.
Sheryl Crow: Oh, I have to tell you, we are totally in withdrawal. When it was all over, it’s like, “Now what are we doing? Who are we? What have we become?” I mean, honestly, what a cool, cool story and what a great thing to have boys be excited about. It was just awesome.
I have a random basketball question for you. Is it true that you once played basketball with Prince?
I did. That is hilarious. How do you know that? Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, he had a basketball goal set up at Paisley Park and he invited me. Gosh, it’s so weird. I don’t even remember how I met him, but he recorded “Every Day is a Winding Road” and invited me to come to Paisley Park. I went and I recorded with him — I played harmonica on a couple of things — and he showed me around the studio, and he had a basketball court. He was an excellent basketball player. I, on the other hand, was, and still am, a terrible basketball player.
That makes both of us. I’m not so great myself on the court.
It was fun, though. It was very cool. There’s a great story about him working at, I think it was Sunset Sound Recorders. Stevie Nicks invited him to come. I guess maybe she wrote “Stand Back” to the groove of “Little Red Corvette.”
[Producer] Jimmy Iovine had him come down and play keyboards on it. And he shot baskets at Sunset Sound Recorders wearing like full-on high heels. It was amazing.
Only Prince, right?
Only Prince, yeah.
In non-basketball related news, you have a new album coming out, Live at The Ryman and More. How did this project come about, and why did you choose The Ryman to make a live record?
I wasn’t really thinking originally about this being a live album. We booked the Ryman because we wanted to play in Nashville. We were just starting this tour to promote the Threads record. And the Threads record was very definitely all about my history with my heroes and what it’s meant to me for 30 years to be able to collaborate with people that I love and that inspire me and brought me to where I am. And so, the Ryman, being a Nashville local here, and the history of that room and what it’s meant to all of us musicians, was the perfect spot to do it.
We wound up recording it — which, we record everything — and during quarantine, we mixed it and had a live album ready to go that was, I think, a pretty good picture of what the last 30 years has meant to me. Thirty years of songwriting and collaboration and inspiration and finally just total gratitude of being able to still do it. So, we’ll put it out and I guess my hope for it is that in the middle of all this weird separation that we’ve endured, that people might feel like they’re in the room while they’re listening to this live record. Hopefully it brings back memories of us all being together and being able to listen to music and be in the room. Kind of like what Frampton Comes Alive did for us kids who never got to go see him.
This record is called Live at the Ryman and More. The More, in this case, includes pieces from shows you performed at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in L.A., and at the Newport Folk Festival. Why did you decide to include that on this set?
That [Ace] gig was also similar to the Ryman in that we asked some friends if they wanted to come out. It felt like the sister show. So, we took a few things from the Ace and took a few things from a Newport that were very collaborative. Lucius was in L.A. and Brandi Carlile, obviously, was at Newport Folk Festival. There were some things I just felt like belonged on the record that couldn’t happen at the Ryman. And so, that is the “And More” part.
You mentioned Stevie Nicks, and you sang “Prove You Wrong” with her along with Maren Morris, Wadi Watchel, and Stevie Jordan on this record. What is it like to collaborate with Stevie Nicks?
Well, I mean, there is nothing like collaborating with Stevie Nicks. It’s hard to ignore for me that, as a nine-year-old girl all the way up, most importantly as a teenage girl, I wanted to be Stevie Nicks. Well before I ever met her, I wanted to be a rock and roller. I wanted to write amazing country rock songs, like “Landslide.” I wanted the harmonies. I wanted the mystery that she held. There is no other Stevie Nicks. The rest of us are just imposters. To be able to eventually meet her and then get to work with her in the studio and then get to tour with her and be able to have a friendship with her; that’s one of the great blessings of not just in my career, but of my life. So, every moment that I get to share the thing that we love most with her is monumental.
One of the first times I saw you was on the Outlaw Tour you did a few years back with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jason Isbell, and Margo Price. Anyway, it was a weird full-circle moment to listen to “Everything Is Broken” on this record with Jason on guitar. Why did you choose to cover “Everything is Broken” off Oh Mercy and how did Jason end up guesting on it?
Well, it’s interesting. Bob has been not only a champion but a hero for me. He took me out, let me open up for him on one of my very first short tours at the Roseland [in New York City]. And then, from then on, has been really kind to me and invited me to sit in on numerous occasions. Even on The Globe Sessions when I was most stuck and could not finish a song, I called him and said, “Help me, what do you do?” He was there for me, it was great. He wound up sending me “Mississippi” [from 2001’s Love & Theft] to record.
I wanted to make sure that his presence was on this album, knowing that he wasn’t going to get on a plane or stop everything to go into the studio. And so, we reached out to Jeff Rosen, who is his guy [manager], his long-time publisher, and said, “Talk to Bob and ask him what he would like if I were to record something of his.” He sent me a couple of songs, and “Everything Is Broken,” honestly, I was just like, “Ugh! The guy is biblical.” Whatever he writes, whether it’s 30 years ago or yesterday, is so pertinent to what we go through as humans in our evolution. I can listen to “Every Grain of Sand” or “Highway 61,” and I can hear what’s happening to us. “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It all still pertains to now! So, when I heard “Everything is Broken,” with all that we’ve gone through and are going through, it just seemed like such a great representative of him and why great to me.
I asked Jason because, not only do I love him, but he’s a holdover. I remember when I first came out and the people that I love the most weren’t getting played on pop radio. You know, my heroes. I felt like I was born in the wrong generation. He is like that to me. He’s like a holdover. You can hear all the great influences in what he does. And, he’s an unbelievable guitar player, which I think a lot of people kind of overlook. And he loves Dylan. I asked him to be a part of it and it was just a perfect fit.
Brandi Carlile, who you’re playing with at The Gorge, is also on this record. The song “Beware of Darkness.” What an incredible duet.
She has an incredible voice and I love her as a person. I guess maybe I’ve known her and been watching her for 20 years. She opened up for us early, early days. She would bust into “Folsom Prison Blues” and just kill it. She would also sing with me on “If It Makes You Happy” and go up to this crazy high note. I think everybody knew that she had a voice that was not of this world. And, she just gets better and better. I really adore her. I think she’s finally getting the due that she deserves. People are finally taking notice of that thing that I feel like I’ve always known.
I’m going to hit you with a few kind of rapid-fire kind of concert live related questions. So, do you have any pre-concert rituals?
Yeah. I’m very close to my band. I’ve been very close to all my bands. We always hang out before every show we play. Generally, we play, anything from Curtis Mayfield to Aretha to ZZ Top. Then we go out on stage and when we come back, we do the exact same thing after the show. Have a couple of beers and listen to great music.
What was your first concert as a kid?
I was 13 years old, and I got to see Peter Frampton.
Oh, wow. Geez. Pretty excellent! When was that?
It was on the tour before Frampton Comes Alive. It was at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee.
What are some of your favorite venues in the world to play?
Well, speaking of the Gorge, that’s definitely one of my favorite places. As is Red Rocks. Red Rocks is an amazing place, just for the beautiful landscape of it. It’s incredible to be able to play and look out over these incredible wonders of the world. And I love all the old Fox theaters. I love that a lot of them have been brought back to their original beauty; the one at St. Louis, the one in Detroit, I love the one in Louisville. There’s quite a few of these old theaters that have been restored. Certainly, the Ryman is in my top three places, not just because of the lineage, but of what’s still held in the wood: all that mojo.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you in the middle of a show?
Oh, gosh. Okay. I can’t remember where we were, someplace out West — it was an outside gig — but I dropped my guitar on my toe, and it broke my toenail in two. It really hurt, but not until I was about halfway through “Leaving Las Vegas,” when I looked down and realized there was blood everywhere. And the audience, the ones that were close up front, could see that I was just standing in this big pool of blood around us. It ruined a very smart pair of LeMieux platforms. So that wasn’t so funny, but it was definitely one of the oddest things that ever happened.
What are one or two must-have items on the rider?
Used to be, it was clean socks and postcards, but now I guess as adults, we bring our own clean socks. I’m a much gentler version of myself, so two beers is my limit, maybe three, Miller Lights. I’m pretty easy now. That’s all I require. Other than that, we usually have dark chocolate and some nuts and that’s about it.
Obviously, it’s been in the news again lately because there’s been an HBO documentary about it, but can you recall what your experience was like at Woodstock ’99?
It was weird. I mean, having played at Woodstock a few years before, not the original, but the one that was in, I think 1994, that was such a beautiful event and it felt like it paid such beautiful homage to the original one. This was completely the antithesis of that. In fact, I think I saw an interview with me saying something about how it was just a bunch of privileged white kids who were acting out, tearing things up and girls on guys shoulders, topless, trying to get on camera and on MTV. The whole thing was so debauched. People were throwing, not only pennies up on stage at us, but also at our hands. Also, the Johnny on the Spot overflowed, and they were throwing…I’ll say feces. I mean, it just was a vile experience, and it was commerce at its worst, where they were overcharging for bottles of water, wouldn’t let kids bring their own water or food in. It was just a bad, bad event.
To kind of flip on that, do you have any sort of transcendent concert memories? Some moments on stage that really stand out for you?
I mean, I have so many of those, it’s just crazy. I mean, I can remember singing Mozart with Pavarotti in Modena, Italy, and looking out and seeing my parents and my mom and dad both totally tearing up. And Eric Clapton’s in the band, you know? That was a big moment.
Another big moment would have been, even just last year or two years ago, playing at Bonnaroo and looking out and seeing, I don’t know, how many tens of thousands of people singing the words to every song. I think of Bonnaroo is being a really young audience and to see all these young people who have grown up with their parents listening to my music and them knowing every word was just so celebratory for us and kind of mind-blowing. We had a similar experience right after that at Glastonbury in Europe. Those are more recent, but gosh, all the way back to being able to play accordion with Bob Dylan and knowing this doesn’t just happen every day.
Next month is the 25th anniversary of your self-titled album that came out in 1996. You once said, “My only objective on this record was to get into people’s skin because I was feeling I had so much shit to hurl at the tape.” Do you feel like you accomplished that goal?
I do. You know, it’s funny. I had to explain to my boys, who are 14 and 11, when they saw pictures from the artwork, and they’re like, “God, you look so different! You have black makeup on.” It’s funny when you go in and you make a record, even the artwork, if you’re being honest, pretty much depicts or portrays what you’re going through at any given moment. Certainly The Globe Sessions was much more introspective, but that record felt like, “Okay, it’s my turn to go and do what I do and put it out and if people like it, then great. And if they don’t.” I felt like it illustrated who I am and that’s what that record was. It felt like kids in a laboratory just frantically putting it all together and creating something and almost not wanting to put it out for fear that the wolves would just take it and devour it. And it wound up obviously doing really well, which was great. But what was more gratifying was the fact that I did it. I went in, no producer and made a record I loved.