The Crow road
Sheryl Crow's never been afraid to make a point about something she believes in. Her 1996 song Love is a Good Thing featured a line about children killing each other 'with a gun they bought at a Wal-Mart discount store.'
Wal-Mart, a powerhouse retailer with shops all over the US, promptly pulled the album from its shelves - and, in doing so, unintentionally drew attention to how easy it was for disturbed kids to get hold of guns.
Crow never regretted the incident, and continued to be vocal about political and environmental issues. But she's generally avoided political references in her songs since, preferring to concentrate on writing personal, emotional pieces such as 2005's Beatles-tinged Wildflower.
Until now, that is. Crow's new release Detours - the singer-songwriter's sixth studio album - features songs about petrol dependency, religious tolerance and the sorry state of the world in general.
Thankfully, it's no Bono-like manifesto or Sting-like piece of proselytising. It's more of a personal reflection on what she sees going on around her. Crow hasn't toughened up her sound for the new endeavour - Detours is solidly embedded in the bluesy pop niche that she's carved out for herself since 1990s hits If It Makes You Happy and Love is a Winding Road. Now, the singer's decided that she's got a few things to say out loud - and that this is the time to say them.
It's difficult and a little irresponsible to keep silent in times like these, she says. Like many artists, Crow is worried about the ideological path that the US has taken under the current administration. 'I really don't feel that you can avoid mentioning politics in your work now,' she says.
'Things have reached a point where you have to speak up and be heard. America has turned into something that's much different to what was intended when it was founded. This is not how America was meant to be. I wanted to reflect these concerns in my work.'
The standout track is Gasoline, which starts with an insistent guitar riff that references the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter. It's a warning about what might happen when, in some future time, the oil wells finally run dry.
'With Gasoline, I was looking forward to the future,' she says. 'When the gasoline runs out, people riot, they go crazy. I wanted to make the point that we are too dependent on oil. What's going to happen when it runs out - how are people going to react?'
Her adopted son, Wyatt, inspired the mournful Shine Over Babylon, a song that hinges on one of those melodic choruses that underpin her biggest hits. She pondered what kind of world he would inherit, and the result doesn't seem that positive:
'Freedoms etched on sacred pillars/ Hollow stones of mindless killers/ Can lead to madman oil drillers/ Won't be long before we are all killers'
'I was looking at my child and wondering what kind of world he was going to live in,' she says. 'With all the environmental problems we have today, what's it going to be like for him to grow up?'
The album's angry lyrics are counterbalanced by some laid-back music that echoes her early work. It's not surprising since Detours producer Bill Bottrell was the man behind the sound of Tuesday Night Music Club, the 1993 album that thrust her into the limelight. There was some dissension between Crow, Bottrell and the other musicians about that album - they claimed she took credit for what was essentially a collaborative project. But that was a long while ago and she's happy to be back working with Bottrell.
The resulting album has a pared-down sound - acoustic instruments figure prominently and the overall pop sound has an occasional country twang.
There are a few reasons for the languid feel. 'I recorded it in my house, just outside of Nashville, so it was a comfortable process,' says Crow. 'And I played most of the instruments myself, along with Bill. I'd come in with a song I'd written and we'd put down a backing track together and build it up from there. Sometimes we'd build it up a little more, if we thought we needed it, other times we wouldn't. It was a very natural experience.'
Writing the songs, which she composed mainly on guitar, came easy, she says. 'I wrote three of them in one day. There seemed to be a lot inside me that wanted to get out.'
Crow has paid her musical dues many times over. She's a veteran stage performer who once played a staggering 542 gigs in a two-year period. Her own music may often err towards melodic pop, but she knows her classic 60s and 70s rock. She should do - she's performed on stage with legends such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton.
Crow, who will be 46 next week, joined her first band at 16 and decided that rocking her cowboy boots off was the way to go in life. Though she first took a degree in classical piano and taught music in a St Louis elementary school.
'I'm glad I learned music, I'm glad I learned about chord structures and how play an instrument,' she says. 'So many musicians today just create their music on computer programmes like Pro-tools.'
In 1986, she moved to Los Angeles to try and break into the rock business. She worked as a backup singer for Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart before Tuesday Night Music Club made her name. The singles Happy and Winding Road established her as a major rock star.
She is, she says, the sum of her musical influences - the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, southern rock, and a touch of country. She used to try to keep her love for the classics from surfacing in her work. But these days, she's happy to wear her musical heart on her sleeve.
'I used to worry about sounding retro,' she says. 'If anything sounded retro, I would worry about the point of it, worry that it had already been done. But I don't care too much about that now. I'm happy to let my influences come into my music. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones and Bob Dylan, and I still love them. That's my musical background. If those interests show up in my music, then that's fine.'
Her influences don't only show up in her music - they show up during her performances, too. In 2004, she joined the Rolling Stones on stage for a raunchy rendition of Honky Tonk Woman at Madison Square Garden. She's played with Bob Dylan twice, sung with Eric Clapton and sung a duet with celebrated country artist Emmylou Harris.
It's great to play with your heroes, she enthuses: 'It's just like having sex! I'm always terrified before I go out there, though. You can learn a lot from playing with people like that. It's great to jam with other people. That used to be what the music scene was all about - everybody would always go and play with everybody else. That was how you learned. It's all different now. People tend to work in isolation, with computers. The idea of a musical community, where people just hang out and play music with each other, doesn't exist any more.'
That's not the only difference between now and then, she points out, returning to her album's political theme. She wonders why people don't demonstrate any more. She says that if the present US administration had been in office in the 1960s, people would be marching in the streets demanding they step down. 'If they introduced the draft, we'd see a lot more demonstrations,' she says, referring to the military move that turned public opinion against the Vietnam war.
'But generally people seem too distracted from current affairs these days. Lots of the people from the 1970s have become materialists. They're happy with their iPods and their cars and TVs. It's all become about gadgetry. They don't really discuss the issues very much.'
That's where she believes music can help. Crow doesn't think songs can change the world, but she does think that they can provoke critical debates.
'I don't think that music can really have much of an effect on older people,' she says. 'It can't cut through the noise any more. They don't really want to hear what you are trying to say. They don't want to have a dialogue.
'But music certainly has an effect on college students. It can generate debate on the issues, which is what I want to do. I don't think that we'll see any big political movements arising in America because people have become too detached from each other. But at least, as musicians, we might be able to get them talking.'
Crow hopes that her new album will do just that.
Detours is out this week