LOS ANGELES — Prolific country legend Willie Nelson and rock singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow met first in 1999 when they were part of a New York tribute concert honoring Johnny Cash . Nelson and Crow opened their CMT Crossroads taping Tuesday night (May 21) with “Jackson,” one of the songs they performed at the Cash tribute. As they did in New York, Nelson played Cash to Crow’s June Carter.
Their friendship has grown since their first meeting. Crow, raised in a musical household in Missouri, reveres Nelson as the “king of phrasing” and “the voice that was the soundtrack to my childhood.” Nelson regards Crow as a worthy musical colleague, an inheritor of his musical “outlaw” spirit and a fit audience for his dirty jokes.
The history of their musical union includes a collaboration on the Matt Serletic/Kevin Kadish song, “Be There for You,” for Nelson’s new album, The Great Divide, and a less-than-stellar performance of the song last year on the Country Music Association awards show. Crow joined Nelson to better effect during the recent taping at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville of a cable TV special honoring Nelson.
The fifth installment of CMT Crossroads, a series in which artists working in different styles find common ground in country music, will debut June 16 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT. (An episode featuring Elton John and Ryan Adams bows Sunday, May 26 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)
The Nelson/Crow pairing, taped on a Sony Pictures soundstage, unfolded according to a now-established pattern. The repertoire for the evening included songs from both artists’ catalogs and one cover, the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.” During a break, host Greg Martin and members of the audience asked questions of the two.
Nelson played an electric guitar throughout the night instead of his battered classical acoustic, dubbed “Trigger.” (Crow said her instruments have no names, but she might refer to them as “my little money makers.”) “My guitar,” Nelson explained, “is on the way to Amsterdam [for a European tour]. I am following soon behind.” During Crow’s “Abilene,” a track from her new album, C’mon, C’mon, Nelson’s electric cord came unplugged, but he didn’t notice until the song had ended (and a crack backing band covered nicely). The duo re-taped the song at the end of the night for a possible video clip to air in advance of the CMT Crossroads debut.
The singers each took care to match the other’s vocal phrasing, casting sidelong glances at each other throughout their performance. In that regard, “Be There for You” worked much better than it did on the CMA awards.
Of “Let It Be Me,” Nelson proclaimed the duo “happy to be resurrecting a great song.” He toyed with the familiar phrasing and seemed to challenge Crow to do the same. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was tasty,” she said after the first take.
Crow and Nelson took turns singing the verses on “Crazy,” the Patsy Cline classic written by Nelson. Nelson proclaimed “You Remain,” written by Leslie Satcher and Don Poythress, “close to being my favorite song.” The last track on The Great Divide, it features beautiful piano work by Matt Rollings and a duet vocal by Bonnie Raitt.
From Crow’s repertoire, the duo drew “It’s So Easy,” a cheatin’ song on C’mon, C’mon done as a duet with Don Henley. Crow described it as “my full-bore country song” written in the tradition of great country music duets. The evening ended with two Crow favorites, “If It Makes You Happy” and “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” The latter had the audience standing and clapping in time.
There was good-natured banter. “I have four albums out,” Crow observed at one point. “And he has … how many Willie?”
Grinning, Nelson replied, “Four this year.”
Crow’s father was in the audience (“He came here for Willie,” she laughed), as were the members of Rascal Flatts and McBride & the Ride , Jessica Andrews and new country artist Marcel. Randy Scruggs and Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were on hand for rehearsal. While he’s in Los Angeles, Nelson will record a track with the Dirt Band for their upcoming third installment of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
The finished, hour-long CMT Crossroads will be supplemented with interview segments in which host Martin chats with Nelson and Crow. It won’t include every song performed Tuesday in Los Angeles — but it should be plenty tasty.
“City of New Orleans”
“Be There for You”
“It’s So Easy”
“Let It Be Me”
“If It Makes You Happy”
“Every Day Is a Winding Road”
Kenny Aronoff, drums
Dan Dugmore, steel and slide guitars
Dean Parks, guitars
Heitor Pereira, guitars
Mickey Raphael, harmonica
Matt Rollings, keyboards
Lee Sklar, bass
The Water Sisters, backing vocals