In 2009, I got patched through to Sheryl Crow (pictured a decade earlier at a Grammys rehearsal) to discuss the “deluxe” reissue of her official 1993 debut Tuesday Night Music Club, an album I had never actually owned until the label sent me the advance a few days beforehand.
There was no need to own the album. It seemed every track got major radio airplay throughout the ’90s, including the Grammy-winning record of the year “All I Wanna Do.” Crow’s proper first album, set for release in 1992, was rejected by the label. But they still made her pay for it, with the royalties from Tuesday Night, as discussed below.
This was my only encounter with Sheryl unless you count my feeble attempt to chat her up at a party years earlier. We also talked about her career and various controversies, as well as her inspirational friendships with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Don Henley. I wish I could have had longer, but 15-20 minutes was all we could squeeze in before she sped off to tape a Tonight Show appearance.
I SAW YOU FOR THE FIRST TIME ON JAN. 11, 1994 AT THE TROUBADOUR WHEN YOU OPENED FOR THE HOODWINKS, AND DON HENLEY CAME OUT. WHAT WAS YOUR STATE OF MIND IN THOSE PRE-STARDOM DAYS?
Well, when you first get started you have no idea what’s ahead of you — if you’re actually gonna be in it for the long haul, if you’re gonna have the kind of success that’s going to allow you to continue to make records and to tour. So I wasn’t really thinking about anything other than trying to make the music believable. We were just getting started, and going in and playing these songs that I hadn’t been playing for a year and a half required thinking without letting the audience know you were thinking, and a lot of concentration. But for the most part it was all really new and exciting. And it seemed very altruistic because we were basically starting from nothing — no fan base or anything. I look back on it and those days seem extremely precious to me now. There was an earthiness and a realness to it, of going out and playing the music for the experience of it, and building a fan base from nothing. No big TV shows, no contests, no anything.
No Internet, that’s right. In fact crazily enough there weren’t cell phones. Isn’t that crazy? We started touring there were no cell phones.
ARE THERE SOME SONGS ON THE RECORD THAT HOLD UP BETTER THAN OTHERS?
I definitely think the ones that were standouts then are standouts now. Surprisingly, “All I Wanna Do” has really weathered the storm, sonically. I don’t listen to my music and revisiting some of this stuff reminded me why it actually resonated with people at the time. It was different sounding than anything on the radio, and Bill (Bottrell, the producer) really created a sound that had not been heard on the radio before. That was what made it fresh and interesting. There are songs that are difficult for us to play and to recreate honestly, like “Solidify,” and those are the songs that are more challenging for me, as songs go.
YOU WERE PLAYING KEYBOARDS ON SOME SONGS, BUT VOCALS AND SONGWRITING WAS PRETTY MUCH YOUR MAIN CONTRIBUTION
Yeah. I was just basically a keyboard player. It wasn’t really until I got ready for that tour that I decided that in order to front the band I couldn’t stand behind a Hammond, which is what I’d always done.
DID IT TAKE LONGER TO RECOUP BECAUSE YOU HAD TO PAY BACK THE COST OF MAKING THE FIRST (UNRELEASED) ALBUM?
Yeah. And it was difficult because the album had sold 6 million copies and we had not seen a dime. My manager was still working out of a storage unit. That was his office, and I was still driving an old Corvair and paying my rent. The way it’s set up is that the money comes in and they hold it for as long as possible, and you ultimately have to make threats to get the money. It was nasty in the beginning, but as it turned out I had a wonderful relationship with A&M. But in the early days it was difficult. The fact that we’d made that record, and it was an expensive record and it didn’t come out was something that was in some ways, I guess, kinda held against me.
WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST BIG CHECK?
Probably not ’til 1996, probably.
AND I GUESS BY THAT STAGE, THEY START CHARGING YOU FOR THE NEXT ALBUM?
Yeah, it’s something like the subprime mortgage business! You take out loans from your record label and then you pay them back with huge interest.
TO WHAT EXTENT HAS THE BACKLASH FROM SOME OF YOUR TUESDAY NIGHT MUSIC CLUB COLLEAGUES AFFECTED YOUR APPRECIATION OF THE RECORD?
For a long time, yes, it did. For a long time there were certain songs on the record I didn’t ever want to play again. “Leaving Las Vegas” was a difficult song for me to want to play. But in hindsight I think it was a real learning time for me, and it was valuable. There are people out there that are built the way they’re built and they’re never gonna be happy with the way anything turns out. If the record had sold 5,000 they would have been happier than the fact that it sold as many as it did. And everybody made a lot of money on it. There’s no way to really justify some of the behavior. But Bill and I, we made our last record together (Detours), and it was a real homecoming and a wonderful experience. He and I never really had any bad blood that I know of. I think people have talked about certain things that he said in interviews. But for the most part there was always a lot of love between Bill and I, and still is a lot of love. In fact we’re working on my new record now, together.
THE BAD BLOOD WAS MAINLY BETWEEN YOU AND DAN SCHWARTZ?
I guess, interestingly, he and David Baerwald. But you have to know the people to understand where they were coming from. Because they came in who they were and they remain who they are. And that’s as diplomatic as I can say it.
APART FROM THAT YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN RELATIVELY TROUBLE-FREE, PROFESSIONALLY AT LEAST, SINCE THEN
I could just safely say that my career’s really been built on hard work and my desire to learn as a producer, as a writer, as a musician, as a performer. It’s really been about the work. That’s been the sole motivating factor in continuing on and always feeling like my best work is ahead of me. That’s what motivates me, and it motivates my art. And then of course as my life has taken whatever turns it’s taken, that always informs the kind of art you make. The well never dries up of things to write about.
AS MUCH AS THIS RECORD IS GREAT, THE SELF-TITLED 1996 FOLLOW-UP BLEW MY MIND AND STILL DOES. ARE THERE ANY PLANS FOR A DELUXE VERSION OF THAT ONE?
I don’t know. I would love that, because there was a lot of material on that record that didn’t make the cut. That was a really special time because it was such a reaction to the success of the first record. That album, the spirit of it, was just based in ‘Hey, I’ll just do it myself’ and kinda getting back to what it was that I loved about making music. I think you really feel that in the tracks. So, you never know. Maybe in 20 years, they’ll do another re-release!
AFTER 15 YEARS, DO YOU FRET ABOUT WHERE YOU FIT IN IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS PROFESSIONALLY?
No, I went through that when I turned 40, and literally I had a personal-career meltdown in the quiet of my own home, of really begging the question, “What is it I do next? When all of my creative peers are 17 and 18, do I have any validity?” And the big answer was, Yeah, absolutely. As you get older the things that you think about and the things that you care about and the things that you talk about with your friends and your family are subjects that are not what a 17- or 18-year-old is singing about. But there is a huge population of people that are talking about those things and are looking for a voice in the wilderness that confirms that these concerns are valid and worth writing about.We’ve always had a great need for singer/songwriters, and so as long as people are singing music and hopeful, I’ll still have a job, I hope.
YOU LOOK AT FEMALE SINGER/SONGWRITERS LIKE CAROLE KING OR JONI MITCHELL OR CARLY SIMON, AND IT SEEMS THEIR CAREERS HAVE STALLED
I like to look at people like Emmylou Harris, who I feel has been doing her best work ever. She was great in the beginning and she’s even greater now. I look at her career and think that that is the kind of career that I could love to aspire to have.
OR DOLLY PARTON?
Dolly Parton is just one of the great songwriters of all time. That’s the kind of encouragement that I look for, and that my job can allow me to continue to have a viewpoint and a voice and validity.
YOU WERE RELATIVELY OLD WHEN THIS RECORD CAME OUT, YOU WERE 31-
-Dean, I was actually 30. Let’s don’t push it, OK?! Actually it’s interesting because I had a conversation with Stevie Nicks about it because I think she was 28 or 29 when their first record (Fleetwood Mac) came out, and that was relatively old for that period as well, although you would never have known that she was already 28 or 29. She was so youthful. My first record, the one that didn’t come out, I made when I was 28 or 29. There was a lot of ground to make up. But I was fortunate in that, for that period, it did happen fairly quickly. Not as quickly as it happens now, where you can go on something really high-profile like a reality show and you have a built-in audience overnight.
DID YOU DESPAIR DURING YOUR 20’S THAT YOU MIGHT NOT MAKE IT?
No. I was living my life, and kinda putting one foot in front of the other, artistically and personally. I did some things in my 20’s that I think really helped me in my 30’s to know what to write about. I toured all over the world with Michael Jackson, I did some touring with Don Henley. I sang backup for a lot of people. It created a great foundation for me as far as becoming the kind of artist that I wanted to be.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE COOLEST THINGS YOU’VE DONE IN THE PAST 15 YEARS, PLAYING WITH THE STONES AND OTHER COLLABORATIONS?
Mostly they aren’t moments that I had on stage, although I can safely say that when I think about my life and who I’ve gotten to play with I’m absolutely blown away. I’ve been so, so fortunate to play with the Stones and Dylan and Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde and my own contemporaries, Sarah and the Dixie Chicks. Willie Nelson — so many artists who were such major influences on me. But I would say that one of the most important things that has happened to me is that before Johnny Cash passed away he recorded a song of mine called “Redemption Day,” and we had numerous conversations on the phone about it. To just be on the phone with Johnny, and him asking questions about the lyric. If he was gonna sing a song it was gonna be a part of his molecular makeup. He was gonna deliver it as if he wrote it. The questions that he asked and his concern for whether I would like what he was doing, it was just really humbling. And the numerous conversations that I’ve had in private with Bob Dylan. He’s been an ally and a friend and a mentor to me. Those are things that in my whole life I would never imagine.
WHAT’S SOME OF THE BEST ADVICE BOB GAVE YOU?
He’s allowed me to come on stage with him on numerous occasions, but it’s like being an OK tennis player and going out and playing with McEnroe, and suddenly you’re schooled in what it really is. He’s given me advice about how to write, how to get out of being stuck in a songwriters block. Just personal conversations that I wouldn’t get into the details about, but that have been really instrumental in helping me keep moving forward.
DO YOU JUST CALL HIM ON THE PHONE, OR DO YOU HAVE TO SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT?
No. He’s made himself very accessible to me, and he’s just an incredible mentor to me. As has Don Henley. He was there in the beginning for me. He’s a consistent for me.
CONVERSELY, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A MENTOR TO PEOPLE COMING UP?
Y’know, it’s been interesting because I’ve had so many experiences now with young artists. Like, for instance, you get put in photo shoots with the up- and-comers, and some of them you can see the spinning-out period where they’re just starting to make it, and the confusion of what that feels like, and how to navigate through the fear that it’s all going to go away, and yet maintain who you are, and to just be able to say: This is a coat of paint. It’s not about the coat of paint, it’s about the structure of who you are. All the fame in the world isn’t going to rob you of your voice and it’s that you have to remember. It is the sole lesson in everyone’s life, remembering who we are and who we came in to be.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2009, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING