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Sheryl Crow on Country Music and Her “Money Maker” Gibson Acoustic

Russell Hall
|
06.17.2014

A slight turn, not a giant leap. That’s how Sheryl Crow assesses the move she made into mainstream country music with her most recent album, Feels Like Home. She’s quick to point out that even “All I Wanna Do”—the Grammy-winning hit that vaulted her into the limelight 20 years ago—contained pedal steel from beginning to end. “I don’t think it’s necessarily that big a switch,” she says. “Today’s country format is where you hear the kind of music I’ve always made. It just happens that now I’m in a different category.”

Crow recorded the bulk of Feels Like Home at her home studio, situated on the second floor of a horse barn on her 50-acre farm just outside Nashville. High points include “Shotgun,” a brawny country rocker fueled by a twangy guitar riff; “Drinking,” a slinky ballad that would have fit snugly onto a Bobbie Gentry LP; and “Waterproof Mascara,” a beautifully orchestrated anthem fitted with lyrics every unmarried mother can relate to. “I’m still doing what I love, but I’m learning and stretching at the same time,” Crow explains. “It’s been invigorating and satisfying to study what makes a country song work.”

Crow talked recently about her move into country music, her “go-to” Gibson guitar, and whether or not she will stay on a “country” path.

What triggered the idea to make a country album?

A lot of people encouraged me, but the major character in the story is Brad Paisley. He really believed in me as a country artist. In 2010 I performed with Loretta Lynn and Miranda Lambert at the CMA awards show. Afterwards, Brad came backstage and said, “Now, will you please make a country record? It’s a format you belong to.” I was nervous about it, because I felt like I might be perceived as another pop artist trying to make that transition. But Brad offered great support, as did Chris DuBois.

Sheryl Crow

Did they give you specific advice?

One thing Brad said was, “You’ve got to turn your vocals up and you’ve got to make the songs more first-person.” He pointed out that if “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Steve McQueen” or “Everyday is a Winding Road” had come out today, they would have fit the country format. My songs were already story-oriented. The thing to do now was to make the songs more succinctly, and instrumentally, in the country vein. It really wasn’t that big a departure.

You moved from Los Angeles to Nashville eight years ago. Did you think back then you would eventually make an album like this one?

I moved here because I had just finished breast cancer treatment and I was kind of a lost soul. The one thing I realized was that, during 25 years of touring and making records, I had never put roots down, anywhere. After being diagnosed, I really felt it was time to reassess my life, to see what’s missing. That was the impetus for making the move to Nashville. I had recorded here a lot and had a lot of family here, and felt it was the right move to make. It was only later that I made the transition to the country format, but I’ve really been making this kind of music for a long time. I’ve been doing guitar pulls for years, and writing conventional story-oriented songs, with guitar solos. As the format has opened up, it’s been a logical move.

How much guitar did you play on the album?

Not as much as I usually do, although I did play lots of acoustic. I didn’t play bass, because we had [acclaimed Nashville session bassist] Glenn Worf. And even though I got pressured to play, why should I when I’ve got Glenn Worf? I did my usual, played a little bit of everything. Typically, in the recording process, when I’m producing, I’ll always track just a three piece—drums, bass, guitar—with me on either guitar or bass. But this time, having such great musicians in the room, I didn’t do that. I either just played acoustic and sang, or sometimes just sang.

Do you have a go-to guitar for songwriting?

It’s funny. I’ve bought a lot of beautiful guitars, but I always end up coming back to the 1964 Gibson Country Western. I call it the old money-maker, because all the hits I’ve ever had have been written on that guitar. I play an original model – always keep it close by. Gibson made a signature model as well. I also play a Les Paul quite a bit.

Sheryl Crow

How elaborate is your home studio?

I have a couple of 24-track API recording consoles, and a Neve BCM-10. We run ProTools. There’s also an old Studer, but we don’t hook that up any more. I have all the vintage gear I’ve always had, from Fairchilds to 1176 compressors—all old stuff I love. There’s also a roomful of guitars and basses, along with Hammond organs and other keyboards—everything you can imagine. And it’s all located in a room above 10 horses.

Lots of country music variety shows were airing on TV when you were growing up. Were you a big fan?

Oh, yes. My favorite was The Mandrells. Barbra Mandrell is one of the reasons I wanted to learn to play every instrument. I do play a lot of instruments, and I attribute that to her. I thought she was so cool, and I liked the fact she had her sisters up there with her. I have two older sisters, and we played a lot together. As a kid, growing up, that was reassuring to me. It made me feel that I could go out and do what she was doing. And then, later on, the music I gravitated toward was music that was country-inspired, like the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. And The Rolling Stones—bands that clearly were country honk, but maybe a little less traditional.

You worked at music for a very long time before things broke big for you. Were you prepared for that huge success when it happened?

When that happened for me, it wasn’t like it is now, where all of a sudden you’re huge, and the entire world knows who you are. We worked for a long time before the night I won the Grammys, which is when everything changed. When I reflect on it … I received my Grammys, we went to the parties, and the next day we played in Fresno. And then the next day we played in San Francisco. It was like we were on this work mission—nose to the grindstone, getting out there and playing. I didn’t have time to sit back and think, “Wow, I’ve really made it. I can rest on my laurels now.” It was a nice acknowledgement for years of work, but it didn’t change the way I felt about my job, about being a touring artist and a songwriter. And I still feel that way. It’s hard to internalize the accolades when really you’re doing something simply because you love it.

Is living in Nashville a lot easier than living in Los Angeles, as far as dealing with celebrity goes?

Well, you know, that’s also changed since I first made it. When I first made it, celebrity wasn’t like it is today. I’ll probably always be uncomfortable with that aspect of what I do, so much so that living in Nashville has been a real blessing. I have my boys here, and they don’t get their pictures taken whenever they go to school, or when we get off an airplane. There are no paparazzi. It’s definitely the way I choose to live. I don’t enjoy the celebrity aspect of what I do.

Will you stay on this path, writing and recording country material?

Yes. The music I’m making now isn’t a huge departure. I think Brad was right. If my early music was coming out today, it would be much more suited for the country format. I feel these new songs are as good—or even better—than anything I’ve ever done. It’s great to feel my best work is in front of me.

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