The rocker's swan song is a star-studded collaborations project featuring Stevie Nicks, Chris Stapleton, Keith Richards, Chuck D, and more

By Sarah Rodman
September 04, 2019 at 09:30 AM EDT
Dove Shore

When she was a little girl, Sheryl Crow would put records on her family’s “big old Magnavox record player,” crawl under the piano, and pore over the covers, liner notes, and lyrics as she listened. She would get lost in the words and worlds of her favorite artists and dreamt of making music of her own one day.

As if her multiplatinum, 30-plus year, Grammy-festooned career were not enough of a realization of that dream, now the singer-songwriter is enjoying the singular experience of the artists on those album covers contributing to her latest — and, according to her, last — record. If she lingers too long thinking about the nearly two dozen musicians who showed up to help create Threads, Crow gets a lump in her throat.

“I’m really emotional,” says the 57-year-old Missouri native of the stunning assemblage of collaborators. “I mean the realistic person [listening to it] goes ‘Well, there’s certain things I should have done better.’ But when I step back from it and listen to it, it’s very emotional for me, knowing that this is the culmination of not only 30 years but, it goes back to me literally lying under the piano studying [James Taylor’s] Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and [Carole King’s] Tapestry and all the records that inspired me to do what I’m doing. And all the people that stood up for the things they believed in and made it okay for me to do the same. I’m just filled with gratitude and awe.”

The watershed release features a mix of new originals and favorite covers (she also hopes to pair the record with a documentary about its making). As the title suggests, Threads illuminates the connective tissue between the nine-time Grammy winner and three sets of compatriots. There are the artists who helped shape her hybrid sound, among them Mavis Staples, James Taylor, Stevie Nicks, Eric Clapton, and Willie Nelson. There are the peers whose careers roughly parallel her own, rising in the late ’80s and early ’90s and finding their own critical and commercial acclaim and distinct voices, like Vince Gill and Chuck D of Public Enemy. And, finally, there are musicians such as St. Vincent, Maren Morris, Andra Day, Jason Isbell, and Brandi Carlile who followed in Crow’s wake and took inspiration from her formidable catalog of albums and long string of hits, including “If It Makes You Happy,” “All I Wanna Do,” “My Favorite Mistake,” and “Strong Enough.”

Though the Steve Jordan-produced Threads will be Crow’s final full-length project, given the vagaries of the music industry, she says she will continue to record. For now, Crow does a deep dive with EW, breaking down 10 tracks from her full-length swan song.

“Prove You Wrong” feat. Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris

“There is no way I could do an album and not have Stevie on it. She is my main woman,” says Crow of this sassy number that throws shade at a misguided lover. “She is one of my dearest friends, and I know if I called her in the middle of the night and said, ‘Help!’ she’d be there in a matter of seconds. It felt really sweet to invite Maren into this club because I think she’s going to have a long career. She’s a great songwriter and a great little rocker. I think Maren’s really going to carry that mantle into the future while rock is dying. And I’m excited to see what she does.”

“Story of Everything” feat. Chuck D, Andra Day, and Gary Clark Jr.

This slice of Sly Stone-evoking protest funk may be the hottest thing on Threads thanks to the fiery trio. “I’ve known Chuck a long time and I think when history writes its story, he will fall into the category of a great outspoken American poet,” says Crow of the Public Enemy frontman. “He was so generous. We sent it to him and he fired it right back, he was so into it.” Plus, she adds, “I just really love him as a person and I count on him to make sense of what’s happening in these crazy times. He seems to be able to shed some light on everything in a way that makes you feel better.”  As for Day, Crow reached out after hearing the brassily soulful up-and-comer was a fan of her music. “I wanted Andra on the record because she doesn’t sound like anybody but her. She has an old-soul kind of thing, almost like a throwback to Billie Holiday, that you just don’t hear much anymore, and it’s not put-on. It is her. And she doesn’t rely on sexy costumes or dance routines, she just is who she is, and her voice just makes me feel hopeful and that’s what I wanted.”

Of the song’s incendiary tone — concerning everything from mass shootings to political divisiveness —  Crow says, “I don’t typically sit down and write a battle hymn, but this song came out of just sheer frustration and anger. I was talking with my younger brother who builds homes and he said, ‘A few years back, people would come up and ask if I had any work that I could give them. And no one comes and asks anymore because no one really wants to work if they can make more money off the system, and even to work part time goes against the money that you can make if you don’t work at all.’ It’s just a terrible situation we put people in in this country where a large population of people have just thrown up their hands. There’s no middle class, you’re either extremely wealthy or you have nothing. And it shouldn’t be like that. We’re too great of a country to allow that to happen. I guess the track basically goes along with the spirit of a Marvin Gaye or a Curtis Mayfield where, hopefully you’re galvanizing and not depressing.”

“Beware of Darkness”  feat. Eric Clapton, Sting, and Brandi Carlile

Further proof that Crow knows how to mix ingredients and generations, this song finds Clapton paying tribute to his late friend George Harrison on a song he originally played on, with Sting and Carlile offering perfect vocal counterpoint. “As much as I wanted any live person on the record, I wanted George,” says Crow, calling the late Beatle’s solo effort All Things Must Pass “my favorite record of all time. With what’s going on in the world and with having small kids, I wanted to record that song. And the first person I thought of was Eric. I love him and he’s been such a huge inspiration for me, and obviously he and George have a whole history together. I think he really delivered on that song in a way that just makes me weep. And Brandi, I don’t want to say she’s like my daughter, but I’ve known Brandi for years. Up until the [2019] Grammys, she wasn’t getting the acknowledgment that I felt like she should. She’s the real deal, and people are finally getting hip to how brilliant she is. I wanted her motherly voice on it.”

Crow had previously recorded with Sting when he added vocals to her wistful 2005 piano ballad “Always on Your Side” and the former Police-man was instrumental at the start of her career when she was still working as a background vocalist for Don Henley and Michael Jackson. “He was such a big part of my emotional life,” says Crow. “Through the years we got to be friends and right at the time I got diagnosed with breast cancer and everything sort of started crashing, that’s when we recorded that song.  He was really there for me and really shored me up, he presented with me at the Grammys, he’s just been kind of a great friend through the years and so, it was nice to have him on the album too.”

Chris Hudson

“The Worst” feat. Keith Richards

“We definitely didn’t want to try to re-create the Stones’ version of it,” says Crow of this gorgeously wistful cover of a Voodoo Lounge track. “He just walks in and he is the song. I mean he played everything with the exception of drums and Wurlitzer. He just totally brought his personality to it. We just went with the spirit in the room and hung out for a couple of days in New York and it was glorious. I mean, I am still that girl from Kennett, Missouri, who every now and again has a moment of “Oh my God, I can’t believe that I’m in the studio with Keith Richards!’

“What’s even more interesting than that,” adds Crow, “was when I was living in St. Louis as a school teacher in the early ’80s, I went to see [famed music documentary] Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was filmed in St. Louis  and Keith was in charge of it and Steve Jordan was the drummer, and I was in the audience.  I mean, it’s insane. I told those guys, ‘Who would’ve ever thought that a 21-year-old schoolteacher would [eventually] be here recording with [you] two?”

“Lonely Alone” feat. Willie Nelson

For this incredibly evocative tune in which two potential lovers meet and circle one another near closing time at the bar, Crow and co-writer Shane McAnally wrote with the country legend specifically in mind. “I’ve only ever written with Shane once [before] and I said I really want to write something that Willie and I can sing together and that is of a caliber of something that he would write. I mean he’s so masterful. He fools you into thinking that his songs are simple, but they’re incredible and just the chord structures and the melodies — when you get into the machinations of it, he’s a genius.”

“Flying Blind” feat. James Taylor

“That’s a song that I wrote with Chris Stapleton a couple years ago,” says Crow of this crafty, poppy ditty about getting older, and sometimes wiser.  “It was a song that I didn’t record for the country record, but I always loved it and I pulled it out and I was thinking about James and I thought, you know this would be a really nice song for us to do. There is something about this song too, just about looking back and accepting the past for being in the past and being in the moment now. There’s a lot of that on this record.”

“Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” feat. St. Vincent

This fiery, angular rocker about corruption and power finds Crow and Annie Clark turning up the volume and the outrage over the country’s current state of affairs. “I can do cranky with the best of them,” she says with a laugh. “I know that the reaction I’m going to get from all the haters is ‘just shut up and sing.’ But when you have kids, the way that we handle the world becomes personal and urgent. And at a time when it just felt like the truth was being rendered as unimportant, I wrote this song. I had just gotten to know Annie and had done some collaborating with her and I thought of her. She has that kickass, ‘eff you’ attitude about her that the song begged for. I sent it to her and asked if she wanted to do something on it, and her response was ‘F–k yeah!'”

“For the Sake of Love” feat. Vince Gill

“Anything he sings makes me cry,” says Crow of the country star. “I mean, he could sing the freaking phone book and it just would kill me. He has that voice, and he’s also been just a dear, dear friend, he and [Gill’s wife] Amy [Grant] both. When I moved to Nashville, I only knew three people, Vince, Amy, and Emmylou [Harris], and I think I’d been there two weeks when Vince called me up and said, ‘Hey, bring your guitar down, let’s do a guitar pull for St. Jude’s [Hospital].’ If you’re open-hearted, he’s right there and he pulls you in and makes sure you feel like you have your people. And every time I’ve asked him to do anything, he’s always said yes.” Gill lent his celestial tenor and guitar prowess to not just this track but several others including “Prove You Wrong” and “Live Wire” with Bonnie Raitt. Gill confirms he was more than happy to oblige.

“She’s one of my best pals, and I just adore what she does,” says the multi-Grammy winner, who recently released his own new album, Okie. “When you’re musical and you have a musician side to you, which she does, it’s real easy to just want to be part of her band.”

Courtesy of Sheryl Crow

“Cross Creek Road” feat. Lukas Nelson and Neil Young

In addition to featured players Nelson and Young, this anthemic, harmony-rich ballad also boasts backing vocals from Don Henley and Margo Price. “I’m directly linked to Don in every way,” says Crow as a fan, friend, and former employee of the founding Eagle. “I sang backup for him, he’s one of the first people to actually really believe in me, encourage me not to send my songs out to other artists, and to save them for myself. He got me a development deal, I mean, he was really there in the early days. We’ve been friends ever since. He is Don, I love him. He’s like family to me and there is no voice like that. Whatever he sings on, he brings it that incredible California country sound that I love so much. And Neil does that. I don’t even need to say that it’s Neil and you know that’s his guitar playing. It’s like Bonnie: as soon as you hear Bonnie’s slide at the beginning of ‘Live Wire,’ it’s like ‘Oh, it’s Bonnie.’ They bring a color to it that you can’t get from anybody else. And Lukas and Margo, I believe in them. I’m inspired by them in a way that I was when I was a kid by the artists that really made me want to do what I’m doing.”

Don’t feat. Lucius

Crow perfectly deploys the indie pop quartet on this divine slice of Burt Bacharach-inspired retro pop. “I really debated about putting it on the record, and Steve Jordan was like, ‘You have to put this on the record, this is the reason I wanted to do the record,'” she recall of the tune which she actually wrote for the stage musical adaptation of Barry Levinson’s beloved film Diner.  “We took the screenplay and brought in more of the female characters so a lot of music is written from the perspective of the women of this period. It’s interesting now that we’re in the #MeToo moment and looking back at the late ’50s of the role of women as it was changing. I even sent it to Burt Bacharach and he laughed like, ‘This is mine.’ I asked Lucius, they’re incredible. I mean they’re so underrated and they’re unique and they love melody and I have a great belief in them being around for a long time and doing interesting things.”

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