The homecoming of Sheryl Crow
The singer has endured breast cancer and a brain tumour. She's been stalked and had a failed romance with Lance Armstrong, but, writes Craig McLean, she has a winner's instinct and her new album is about regrouping and going back to her roots
On Sheryl Crow's farm, sipping PG Tips, there are many things to discuss. Things such as this 50-acre spread half-an-hour's drive from Nashville, the result of a 20-year career in which she has sold upwards of 35 million records. Or her new album, which is the nine-times-Grammy-winner's first country collection. Or her battles with breast cancer and a brain tumour. Or the two sons the 52-year-old adopted as a single mother seven and four years ago.
But first, there's a boil to lance: Crow's former fiance, Lance Armstrong. The couple dated for almost three years between 2003 and 2006. Ancient -- and brief -- history. But the shadow cast by the super-cyclist's much-belated admission of illegal doping is long.
Is it, I wonder, frustrating to Crow that she is forever dragged back into the controversy surrounding her ex? "Yeah, I get tethered to that," she says evenly. "I was talking about it with a friend. I guess if I was married to a famous person, perhaps I wouldn't get asked about it. And she said, 'No, you're a woman, and people always want to know what you're wearing and what he was like.'"
For the record, the lean, glowing Crow is dressed down in tight jeans and a loose blouse. She looks great for a woman half her age.
But as to what he might have been like: were her suspicions about doping perhaps part of the reason they split?
Crow -- friendly, relaxed, hospitable -- pauses briefly before replying. "Oh, you know," she says with a hint of a sigh, "I couldn't talk about any of that stuff. Mainly because it's just a part of my past and there were other things that were much more problematic about the whole situation. There were a lot of things that fed into us not being together, like there are in every relationship. We just had some very big, fundamental differences."
This time last year, Crow was dragged into the controversy by comments from Betsy Andreu, wife of Armstrong's ex-team-mate Frankie Andreu. In her opinion, Crow must have known something. The whistleblower who exposed the seven-times Tour de France winner said: "Sheryl was by his side when he was trying to destroy people and she said nothing. That's unconscionable. It just astounds me."
When I mention this, Crow replies coolly. "I think Betsy, just like everybody in this picture, has her own ulterior motivations. And Betsy doesn't know me. I think grace goes a long way. I think going out into the press and talking about what people should and shouldn't do when they don't know anything about you or your story, is irresponsible and slightly on the weird tip, personally."
I wonder if Crow had any closure after Armstrong went on television with Oprah. She mutters something indistinguishable, then says: "I don't need closure from any of that. He holds no relevance to my life. Even answering questions I have to, like" -- Crow, who previously dated Eric Clapton and actor Owen Wilson, claps her thighs -- " ... I have to, like, dig. Pretty much my life exists right this second, and my boys are the first thing I think of [in the morning], the last thing I think of at night, and past relationships with famous people or not famous people, with good people, with bad people, with tortured, confused people -- every relationship has served a purpose in my life."
If anything, the whole experience vividly demonstrated Crow's own winner's instinct. Splitting with the world's most-famous cancer survivor a week before being diagnosed herself is an irony that might have floored many people. To fight grave illness not once but twice, then start a family on her own -- that takes some strength.
"A friend of mine is a very intuitive person. He says we all have this propensity for telling a story about ourselves. And the story I always told was that I'd do what was expected: I'd fall in love, I'd get married, I'd have a happy home, I'd have kids. Everything would be served up in that order. And that story you tell about yourself can be the very story that limits you. Letting go of what it is your life is supposed to look like sometimes is the most liberating moment you will ever have." She thinks, then, that you have to "let go of it and say, 'you know what, maybe my life is not gonna happen in the order I thought it would'. As soon as I did that, I had the opportunity to adopt my first son. So sometimes it's not about this picture you paint about what your life is supposed to look like. Certainly I wouldn't have painted in some of the experiences I've had, like breast cancer. But those are the experiences that have redefined my life.
"So talking about Lance," she laughs drily, "it was a nanosecond in the grand scheme. But it was a nanosecond that introduced me to some things about myself that I needed to look at. But his story is succinctly," she concludes with steely finality, "his story."
As to Crow's new story, it's all in Feels Like Home. Her eighth studio album is the sound of the woman from small-town Missouri regrouping and going back to her roots. She sounds all the better, more relaxed, for it.
She's been out of the spotlight for a while, and has been reluctantly and gingerly embracing the social media requirements of modern PR. She admits she's no natural Twitter user, and decries a culture where internet trolls are everywhere. "I had a song come out -- it was in reference to a Hank Williams tribute record -- and somebody blogged that it sounded like someone being raped in an open field." She shakes her head. "It was so heinous. I sobbed. I never read that stuff, but I happened to catch that one thing. And I sobbed -- and it wasn't even what he said. It was the hatred. And we've given everybody the opportunity to have an anonymous platform. We've given them momentum."
She's had trouble with stalkers, too. "I've had to testify against people." She had one guy who died by suicide, she says, before moving quickly on. "It's really difficult. I've attracted people who are very, ah, challenged." She feels safe today, but there was a time when she had to hire a security guard. Crow now seems to have found peace. After 21 years in Los Angeles, she relocated to Nashville, a three-hour drive from where she grew up, six years ago. First she lived in a larger farm (which she's in the process of selling, as she is the LA home), but is now more than comfortable on this huge and chicly countrified property.
The buildings and greenery speak of antebellum grandeur and rural civility. And, frankly, of lots of money. I knew Crow had sold some records, but I didn't think it was that many. She must, I suggest, have invested wisely. "Oh, thank you," she says with a flash of that toothy smile.
"I was raised where the worth of a dollar meant something. Whenever I wanted something my parents said 'save your money'. And I worked, whether it was babysitting or life-guarding or waiting tables or playing in cover bands. And I still feel that way. I'm not terribly frivolous, although I buy a lot of junk," she says cheerfully, gesturing around her grand, antiques-stuffed drawing room. "But I buy stuff that I feel has a history and means something." And she insists she's not some idle, country-club rock star who's only playing at being a cowgirl. Crow considers that she has a responsibility to look after the land.
"I feel I have a stewardship to the earth. We're all renters here, and we've in some ways lost our pantheist connection -- the connection that something bigger exists that created all of this. And we're just here for a nanosecond. My mom and dad always said you have to leave the campground nicer than you found it, for the next people. And that's the way I feel about life. My kids are growing up with that."
Moving back south was part of Crow reconnecting with her roots, a move in part spurred by her first illness. "Getting diagnosed with breast cancer was such a game-changer. Up to that point I had just been ... I don't want to say on the run, but definitely constantly moving. I had never put roots down. And I grew up in such a small town where everybody was connected. Once I got breast cancer I felt like I'm not connected to anything."
In early 2006, Crow had a lumpectomy, then a course of radiation therapy. She thinks that coming back home contributed, "hands down", to her recovery. It put her in a better place, in every sense of the phrase.
"It was such a weird thing to go from my private life and my relationship falling apart, then getting diagnosed six days later. Then having paparazzi move in right outside my house [in LA]. I couldn't leave my house -- it was like being barricaded. Because everybody wanted a picture of me at my lowest point.
"There's no paparazzi in Nashville. At all." Really? Not even thanks to Taylor Swift? She shakes her head. "Nicole Kidman lives here. And there's no paparazzi."
As for her meningioma, which was discovered in mid-2012, she says it's a slow-growing and benign tumour. It hasn't required treatment, although she has an MRI every six months. It's "nothing to worry about", she shrugs, but admits to a feeling of "why me? Again?" when she learnt of the truth of the odd pressure she'd been feeling in her head "like somebody pressing their thumb on the inside".
"God, let me tell you -- when I found that out, there was a moment there where I just thought, 'Holy Christ!' Plus, your brain -- it's your brain. That's command central. I can live my whole life without my breasts and not think twice about it. But your brain -- that just immediately sounded like a death sentence. But," she shrugs, "it wound up being something that is actually not that unusual."
Has she talked to her sons (Wyatt, almost seven, and Levi, almost four) about her illnesses? She shakes her head. Even Wyatt is too young.
Crow admits she's already thinking ahead to the teenage years, and how she'll protect her boys. "The images we see across the board are so sex-driven that it's confusing for young girls and boys. And I think it's confusing for men -- men my age feel like they have to be with somebody whose skin is perfect in order to feel like they're youthful. That's probably an age-old thing."
One thing her children won't have to worry about: the stability of their family unit. Crow has always been circumspect about the details, but in the beautiful new track Waterproof Mascara ("cause it won't run like his daddy did"), Crow talks of a child asking: "All my friends have daddies, mommy, why don't I?" Is that a song to pre-empt her sons' questions?
"Yeah, my six-year-old said to me the other day, 'mommy, when you get married ... ' I was like, wow, it's the first time he's actually mentioned to me that it's OK for me to get married," is her smooth and obfuscatory answer.
Is she in a relationship? "Umm, I'm not right now. But you know, I'm always open," she beams. "But it's interesting dating and having boys. 'Cause there's a quick weed-out! It takes a lot to get to that second date! That said, whoever does step into our life is going to get two amazing boys with no baggage! There's no dad, there's no ex-husband. It's just a clean-slate." Sheryl Crow may be single, but it doesn't mean this smart and likeable woman isn't on the lookout. "It's like my mom says: wear something nice to the grocery store," she says with a laugh, "'cause you never know."