Written by: Steven Watts
Photos by Gene Royer and Provided
Likewise, Crow’s close relationships with three siblings helped deepen the family bond. Like most teenagers, the singer jokes, she could hardly wait to leave home, but now she has spent the last 20 years “trying to re-create what I had there.”
But this Midwestern girl’s strong sense of family goes beyond biological connection. In October 2015 she returned to her alma mater, the University of Missouri, to honor a different kind of family loyalty. She attended MU from 1980 to 1984, majoring in music, and came back to headline a weekend fundraiser for the School of Music for a new building. Crow met with university officials and played an acoustic show for a donor banquet at Mizzou Arena on Friday evening. The following night saw a full-blown concert at the Missouri Theatre, as the singer-songwriter and her band thrilled a large, enthusiastic crowd. Between numbers, she reminisced about her student days in Columbia and praised the university for shepherding her into adulthood. Clearly, Crow’s strong sense of family loyalty encompasses the “MU family” that nurtured her.
Sheryl Crow’s aid and assistance to MU is no small matter. Over the last 25 years, she has become a major figure on the American popular music scene. After moving to Los Angeles following college and a brief teaching stint near St. Louis, she experienced the usual hard knocks in climbing the ladder of professional success. There were crowded living conditions in a tiny house where one roommate worked as a seamstress for Van Halen and Poison (“there was all this spandex and big-haired band guys walking around”), while Crow scrambled to support herself by recording commercial jingles for In-N-Out Burgers, Toyota and McDonalds.
There were several stints as a waitress, punctuated with recording sessions as a backup singer for artists including Stevie Wonder, Belinda Carlisle and Don Henley. Then from 1987 to 1989, she worked as a backup singer on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour, a gig that brought her increased attention in the pop-music world. Crow began hanging out with a group of musicians in Pasadena, California, and filling cassettes with her original tunes. Utilizing many of these players, she finally broke through in 1994 with her debut album, Saturday Night Music Club, with its hit singles “Leaving Las Vegas,” “All I Wanna Do,” “Strong Enough,” and “Can’t Cry Anymore.” It earned her three Grammys, including Record of the Year.
A long string of hits followed over the next few years. Songs such as “If It Makes You Happy,” “A Change Would Do You Good,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “Soak Up the Sun,” and “Steve McQueen” climbed the charts. All in all, Crow has released eight studio albums while writing songs for movies and Broadway shows and appearing in several films and TV shows. She also has toured relentlessly, giving hundreds of concerts all over the world with her band of first-class musicians.
She also appeared onstage with some of the giants of rock and pop music, including Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, Prince, George Strait and Sting. With nine Grammy Awards (out of 32 nominations) and sales of more than 50 million albums worldwide, Crow is a genuine music superstar.
She still can’t quite believe her own success, and often sits back and looks at her life with considerable wonder. “I have had some unbelievably satisfying experiences — I have opened up for the Dali Lama, I have played with the Rolling Stones, I have sung with Pavarotti, I have performed before presidents and known three of them,” she muses. “For a kid from small-town America, it is amazing. I would never have dreamt it when I was younger.”
But despite this flurry of acclaim, Crow’s deep Missouri roots continue to sustain her. Her hometown of Kennet, Missouri, population 11,000, sits deep in the Bootheel, only a few miles from the Arkansas border and a two-hour drive from Memphis. It is a slice of small-town America, a Midwestern version of Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith show, where everyone knows everyone else, neighbors are really neighborly, and daily life is a pageant of familiar faces.
“Life was a lot simpler then,” Crow recalls, where you walked to the local school on weekdays and went to the Presbyterian church on Sundays. “Saturdays revolved around hanging out and seeing your friends. Freedom was going around on your bicycle, and curfew was when the sun went down. Everyone knew everyone’s kids, and while you had freedom, there was a sense that people looked after each other.” Activity in the Crow household revolved around music and literature. Her father, Wendell, was a lawyer and trumpet player, and her mother, Bernice, gave piano lessons. The children often gathered after
the evening meal while Wendell read aloud to them from favorite authors such as Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. Crow grew up listening to Cole Porter and George Gershwin and became familiar with the Great American songbook.
Her parents also directly inspired her musical development. Wendell and Bernice played in a local swing band, and they would frequently come home from a performance singing and dancing, an occurrence that the Crow children observed with delight. For young Sheryl, family and music were simply inseparable. “At Christmas time, we were that family who stood around the piano and sang carols in harmony,” she jokes.
Crow grew up with a sense that music would play an important role in her life, but like most kids, her thoughts about the future were hazy. As a girl she particularly loved musicals, with their catchy melodies and romance and fantasy. At age nine, she was so smitten with Gene Kelly in the movie version of Brigadoon that she wrote to him in care of Warner Brothers and was thrilled to receive an autographed photo nearly a year later.
Crow’s impressive musical success also stems from her skills as bandleader. Peter Stroud, an ace guitarist and her musical director for the last decade, says that while she has a clear idea about her songs, she also gives her bandmates considerable latitude in contributing musical licks and pieces of the arrangement during both recording and performing. “Sometimes she will come into the studio with something definite and ‘boom,’ we will do it that way,” he explains. “Other times she will have a rough idea but will grab things from others and say, ‘let’s explore that.’ She is very perceptive creatively.” In other words, Crow practices both leadership and collaboration in putting together her music.
That same spirit informs her support for the MU School of Music:
She wants to cooperate but is happy to take the lead. The music facilities, she notes, are badly in need of an upgrade. “When I got to the campus I saw how beautiful it was. Then I got to the music building and it was like walking into East Berlin and seeing that Stalinist architecture,” she quips. So she determined to help raise money to build a new music building. Crow argues that the arts are important because they “document a civilization — painting and music can really speak to you about the human spirit.” But they need to be nurtured in order to flourish, just like the broader university. She is a big fan of higher education because, just as in her life, “it has a major impact on what you end up becoming.”
For their part, MU officials deeply appreciate Crow’s efforts. Mike O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science, reports that her concert there netted about $50,000 for the new music building and says, “Sheryl Crow’s willingness to help us is just great.” Julia Gaines, director of the School of Music, is effusive. “Sheryl studied music in the same music space we have today. The facilities were out of date then, and are dilapidated now,” she explains. “Her star power helped us raise money for a new building that is desperately needed. People know her name and really listened when she came and supported our case.” Crow is matter-of-fact about her contribution: “My desire and my wish and my hope is that the money raised will help build these kids a great new building.” So when you dig beneath Crow’s rock-star persona, you see a grown-up version of that small-town girl from Kennett, Missouri: polite, practical, friendly, commonsensical and down to earth. At the root of it all, perhaps, lies a devotion to hard work.
Crow confesses to being drawn to “that old Puritan work ethic; that need to be constantly productive” and credits it with driving her to succeed. She declares, “As far as making it goes, if you are not into the process of learning and getting better, then you need to change what you are doing. Because that informs the outcome.” Her great passion for music — “I just love it, love listening to it, love playing it, and it has always brought me a lot of solace, identity and joy” — is joined to a practical determination to honing her craft. In her words, “I am a student of music, always learning and dissecting.”
At the same time, in more recent years, Crow has worked on learning how to relax. “As I have gotten older, I am trying to find peace in what are some unpeaceful situations. I am a single mom, a breast cancer survivor,” she says. “My dad has said, ‘No one looks back at their life and wishes they had worked more,’ so I have been trying to remind myself that I don’t have to work all the time. Work isn’t what says, ‘I matter.’ It is just something to pay the bills and bring you a little joy.”
She also remains determined to keep that small-town sense of innocence and wonder about the world. She believes it is important “to not get jaded, to not get cynical. I grew up with a picture of my mom, age 16, and Harry S. Truman, that hung in our hallway at home. It was such a big deal — my mom met the president! Now we have become cynical about the things that used to be important. I want to remind young people: Be wide-eyed and innocent about events in your life. We can get so desensitized to things that we don’t see the wonder in them.”
But in the end, for this music star, issues of meaning and happiness in life always go back to the family. Increasingly, this means her immediate family. A few years ago, she pondered adopting a child and approached a trusted source of advice. “I went to my parents and told them I wanted to adopt, and they were thrilled and said, ‘We will be there every step of the way.’ ” So Crow took the plunge and is now the mother of two boys, ages six and nine. In one sense, parenthood has
crimped her itinerant musician lifestyle. “I am a middle-aged mom of two kids and I am tired all the time,” she notes with a smile. “I don’t want to be gone more than a couple of nights in a row; my children dictate where I’m going to play and what I’m going to do.” Children helped clarify her priorities in life. “Kids changed me as a person. It made my choices a lot simpler.” For this Missouri girl, becoming a parent is “the best thing that has ever happened to my life. My kids have been a true blessing.”
Sheryl Crow, in her own fashion, has come full circle and reconstructed those cherished, halcyon days of family life in small-town Missouri. •