Musical celebrities come and go, but true artists will wait around for you forever.
It took me an inordinate amount of time to realize that Sheryl is a true artist with considerable musical abilities, and not merely a megastar celebrity. I blame myself, of course, but also the media. Whenever I tuned in to commercial radio or checked the news on the Internet, there she was, drinking beer on a Tuesday with the Tour de France phenom, Lance Armstrong. The same top selling songs, the same staged photos of ultra successful, attractive individuals who seemed too good to be true. Lance, he got his comeuppance, I suppose, when his Tour titles were taken from him and he confessed to extreme levels of performance enhancing drug abuse to Oprah on TV. As for Sheryl, she merely had to endure the ignominy of being objectified as a sexy siren who just wanted to have some fun.
But clearly, she wanted so much more. Or so much less, depending on your perspective. She wanted to make music. Good, catchy, enduring tunes that would make other musicians put down their iPhones and take notice. A nod of the head. I glint in the eye. A sign of mutual respect and recognition. Good on you, Sheryl, I imagine them saying. Great album. Honest work in the studio. Nice vocals. Superb production team. Really nice collaboration. I like it. We dig it. We salute the effort.
The thing is, I don’t have a musical bone in my body. I am a writer, not a player. Hand me a guitar, and I’ll hand it right back to you as if it were a live snake, and a venomous one at that. But even I can tell from Track 1 of 100 Miles from Memphis that the album is gonna rock. The sound, it hits you with a wall of wonder and beauty and never lets up until the final bonus track, “I Want You Back,” concludes. Sheryl collaborates here with Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley, who play on the tracks, help write them, and produce them. At one point, rock legend Keith Richards shows up to play electric guitar. Justin Timberlake provides backup vocals on “Sign your Name.” Citizen Cope sings and plays with Sheryl on “Sideways,” which makes sense, ‘cause he wrote it as well.
Dig into the liner notes and you’ll see that Sheryl’s talents lie in her musical discernment to team up with vocalists and instrumentalists of extremely high caliber. A mini-orchestra of string players, sometimes. Backup vocalists, in most others. A great trumpet player (Printz Board) and saxophone studio musician (Tim Orindgreff). An awesome Hammond B3 organ player (Jeff Babko). It goes on and on. These aren’t household names, but among musicians, they kinda are. That’s what makes a Sheryl Crow album so good; sure, she’s got that breathy, sultry voice and can hit perfect notes on demand, and she’s got guitar-playing game for sure, not to mention a poet’s sense of verbal impulse. But the music, it’s a team effort. You can’t create such a lush, all encompassing sound solo. Even Mozart or Beethoven couldn’t pull that off. Music, the real kind, it needs humans to work together for hundreds of hours, if not more. Play. Record. Re-record. Mix. Edit. Master. A dozen times. And then, you have an album of quality like this one.
Sheryl, if you are reading this, know that I only own two of your albums in my personal CD collection: this one and your self-titled album from 1996. I love them both. Well, now I do. If you’re ever in the Bay Area and want a hiking partner in the redwoods or someone to show you the most secluded and pristine parts of the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Carmel – and also where to find the best carnitas tacos (hint; in a gas station), the best craft spirits (hint: in Santa Cruz), or the most interesting beer and wine, contact me on social media. I won’t tell anyone you’re stopping by, except for my wife, of course. She’s not a fan, but then again: neither am I. I’d like to think that I’m a fellow traveler who finally found out after years of existence that you’re one of us, too. Cheers for that! And awesome work on this album. Even a musical ignoramus like me can feel the greatness.