“Every Saturday morning, we were in front of the TV watching the Jackson 5 cartoon,” she recalls. “I grew up watching ‘American Bandstand’ and learning all the current dances . . . my parents were in a swing band. When they came home after gigs they were listening to a lot of rhythm and blues. The music that lured me was the music that came out of Memphis — a lot of Al Green, and obviously Elvis and Sun Studios.”
After a two-decade career — during which all seven of her studio albums have peaked at No. 6 or higher on the Billboard 200 — Crow has the gravitas to record an album in any genre she wants. “100 Miles From Memphis” (released July 20 on A&M Records), the distance from her hometown to the music mecca, is an ode to her formative memories of music-and one that the label hopes can inspire young music fans to investigate the landscape beyond processed pop and Auto-Tune.
“She came of age in an era that can too easily define you by your hits, which she’s had a lot of,” says Crow’s manager, Scooter Weintraub of W Management. “We both thought this is a good time to not be so concerned when radio looks at you a little bit differently than they did when you were 25 or 30. Younger audiences are learning about the Black Keys and the Raconteurs and the White Stripes, and that music is steeped in the same thing.”
But even classic soul requires new marketing techniques. “The idea when Scooter came in and presented the project to us was, ‘Let’s be very in front of this. Let’s look for opportunities that capitalize on Sheryl’s celebrity,’ ” Interscope Geffen A&M vice chairman Steve Berman says. “We looked at places where her audience may be that may not be traditional music spots.”
‘MILES’ TO GO
Crow made appearances at the corporate headquarters of top companies-in particular, at Starbucks and at the shareholders’ meeting for one-time sparring partner Walmart-and both retail giants have committed to promoting the album in-store. “It’s funny, because [Starbucks] is kind of a throwback for me since the record-store tradition is dying,” she says. “The fact you have a social place where you can be a part of that is great.”
In addition, the album will be on sale at Nordstrom’s and Whole Foods, Berman says.
Expect tracks from “Miles” to be licensed extensively through the end of the year, Berman adds, including part of ABC’s promotional campaign to introduce its slate of fall programming. “We’re looking for many opportunities to license the music at a network level-everything from Major League Baseball to Lifetime to the networks,” Berman says. “Obviously Sheryl works very well on TV, but we said to ourselves, ‘How do we do this different from normal TV?’ “
On release day, Crow teamed with the CBS Interactive Music Group for a “Live on Letterman” webcast. As part of the appearance, Crow did the standard TV taping for “Late Show With David Letterman,” but also taped an extended performance that is streamed on the “Late Show” website on CBS.com and airs on select CBS Radio stations nationwide. The video is then made available on demand through CBS partners TV.com, ETonline.com, TheInsider.com and Vevo.
The chat show circuit continued with an appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” July 22 and the “Good Morning America” Summer Concert Series in Central Park July 23.
In addition, she taped an episode of PBS’ “Soundstage” July 21 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, following up an appearance and performance on QVC July 19. (The QVC version of the disc comes with a bonus CD with six previously released songs.)
Crow, who has long been vocal in her support of environmental issues and charitable organizations, recorded a public service announcement for the Humane Society that also will be played extensively on TV.
It’s the charity element, in fact, that brought Crow back into the Walmart fold, as the two will now team to promote local food banks. In 1996, the singer had a falling out with the retail giant over the lyrics to her song “Love Is a Good Thing,” which include: “Watch out sister/Watch out brother/Watch our children as they kill each other/With a gun they bought at the Walmart discount stores.”
Walmart refused to carry the album that contained the song, “Sheryl Crow,” although it still displayed her other records. Amends have been made, Crow says. “Since that time they’ve become very stringent about making sure that people buying guns are registered and that it’s lawful,” she says. “I would feel better if we would have stricter gun laws, and I’m not ashamed to say it.”
Crow also just joined the chorus of voices on Twitter — yes, that’s actually her @SherylCrow — although she prefers to use social networking for promotional purposes instead of cataloguing private tics. “I refused to do it until I had something to twitter about than personal things, although I know people really enjoy reading about the personal stuff,” she says. “We’re able to upload podcasts and all kinds of things. There are some really wonderful things about getting your art out there in different ways.”
She is also relying on tried-and-true methods of promotion: The album was available for preorder on iTunes and streamed on MOG.com the week before it was released. Behind-the-scenes videos of the recording of the album also are available on Vevo.
And after doing five dates with Lilith Fair, Crow will set out on her own 30-date tour in late summer, including stops at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York, followed by a U.K. and European tour this fall.
“We set up a lot of stuff [at the outset] with this album because we really want this music and the sound exposed, but I think there’s a very long-term approach to this,” Berman says. “Once she starts playing this live and we move into the holidays, we’re going to have many lives with this record.”
ON THE RECORD
Crow’s first big break was as a backup singer for childhood hero Michael Jackson, and it was on Jackson’s Bad world tour in the ’80s where she met longtime manager Weintraub.
“We were both kids. I was like 26 years old or something,” he says. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw her sing a solo note rather than with the background singers. It was during a sound check and she sang an Aretha [Franklin] song-and right then and there, I thought, ‘Sheryl sounds like Bonnie Bramlett from Delaney & Bonnie.’ A white, Southern soul singer with a little bit of a country rock twang. It’s funny because her previous records allude to these styles sometimes, but this is the first time she full-on embraced it.”
Overall, the 12 tracks of “Memphis” meld the kick-back boho vibe of Crow’s early work with Stax-like instrumentation. “We had talked about this idea a long time ago with Mark Ronson as a thought,” Weintraub says. “He’s great, but he’s always super busy, and we were a little wary of the trendiness of using Mark.”
“My last record was very commentary-driven, very socio-political, as opposed to pop tunes,” Crow says. “I kept running into [producer/guitarist] Doyle Bramhall II, who’s this very dear friend. Doyle was working on this Eric Clapton record with Justin Stanley and I was loving what they were doing.”
Bramhall and Stanley encouraged Crow to improvise. When doing a take on Marvin Gaye’s “It’s a Desperate Situation,” she broke into a bit of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” That one-take moment of inspiration is now the bonus track on the album.
“The goal of the record was to not have too many songs and to let the songs breathe and be longer than usual,” Weintraub says. “All the songs hit with a cool groove. It’s OK if the songs go five minutes.” And, Weintraub notes, those five-minute songs can be edited down to a radio-friendly 3:40.
The first single from “Memphis”-the sweet, swingy track “Summer Day”-is No. 6 on Billboard’s triple A radio chart after six weeks of release. Crow is something of the queen of the triple A format; since 1996, she has had seven songs hit No. 1 on that chart. Five of them-“A Change Would Do You Good,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “Anything but Down,” “Soak Up the Sun” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest”-topped the chart for multiple weeks.
Internationally, Crow has done promotion in London, which is starting to pay off. In the United Kingdom, “Summer Day” stands at No. 29 on the U.K. Radio Airplay chart after three weeks of release.
Most of “Memphis” was recorded at Henson Studios in Hollywood, where Crow inadvertently met up with Justin Timberlake, who was working with Jamie Foxx in the same building. “There’s something really wonderful about working in a commercial studio,” she says. “The last five records I made was in my own studio, so I don’t run into a lot of people unless I invite them over. So I dragged [Timberlake] into the studio and said, ‘You have to check out my Al Greenish version of Terence Trent D’Arby‘s ‘Sign Your Name,’ ” and he loved it. He volunteered to sing background on it.”
That little girl who danced along to the Jackson 5 and grew up to sing alongside Michael Jackson now has two children of her own, Wyatt and Levi. Crow dedicates the album-and “all else”-to them in the liner notes.
In part, Crow says, “Memphis” is inspired by the course of a full life well-lived-and an acknowledgement that with wisdom comes a new creative perspective.
“Soul music typically pulls from emotion and vulnerability and desire,” Crow says. “In these last few years I’ve become much more of an emotional person. I’ve had kids. I’ve gone through a lot that’s been very transformative . . . it was just something so effortless about making this record for me. It was truly an extension of where my soul is at right now.”