Most rock stars would bristle at being labeled "country" -- but not Sheryl Crow.
This year, she earned a Grammy nomination for collaborating with Brooks & Dunn and Vince Gill. When she released The Very Best of Sheryl Crow in 2003, she included a country mix for "The First Cut Is the Deepest," which cracked the Top 40 of Billboard's country singles chart. She did even better with "Picture," a duet with Kid Rock that climbed to No. 21 and secured the unlikely duo a CMA nomination.
"I feel really, really lucky that country has embraced me, because my own field of music has gone the way of more beats and less about songwriting," Crow told CMT.com during a recent interview in Nashville. "I've been really lucky that country music has embraced me and has not ruled me out. For me, it gives me a lot of hope. At least country music still loves songwriting and still loves good music. I hope I can keep country fans interested."
Crow describes her latest album, Wildflower, as a "straight-up art record," and she released it in advance of a pop album she had been working on. "And now that I've compiled what would have been the pop record, I realize it's probably more pop than what I'd like to put out," she says.
"For my next record, I'm really going to concentrate on making a record that is my version of country music. You know, I fear that it's going to be more country than what is getting played at country radio. I really am a purist about country music. I loved, and still do love, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and the old stuff -- as well as Willie Nelson, who I think is one of the best songwriters in every format."
But in the meantime, Crow created Wildflower to evoke an intimate, singer-songwriter vibe, drawing on inspiration from Neil Young and especially Elton John. She even borrows a phrase from "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" for "Always on Your Side," an elegant, Elton-esque ballad about remaining loyal, even when the other person has moved on.
Envisioning a whole album of similar piano-based songs, she had originally asked John to produce the project. However, she wound up leaving the U.S. to support former fiancé Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France -- a significant decision that informed the feel of the album.
"There is a lot of vulnerability when you first get into a relationship," she says. "What it forces you to do is really meet yourself. It forces you to look at some of your imperfections. The vulnerability that you feel in your relationship is not only the excitement of love but the possibility of it not working out -- and that fear.
"But then compound that with ... what was going on in the world at the time, which was very chaotic, as it is now. A lot of that stuff came into play, as well as being in Europe and not really knowing anybody. Basically, what I had was my relationship and the news."
Even the sophisticated album artwork -- an edgy, curvaceous mix of blacks and greens -- symbolizes her frame of mind found within Wildflower. Even thought the content is "really heavy," she says wanted the visual aspect "to feel somewhat whimsical, because there's the juxtaposition ... of beauty and destruction, peace and chaos, and all those come into play. As you get older, you're much more aware of it."
Asked whether current music fans generally miss out on a piece of someone's artistry if they only download songs -- but skip the packaging -- Crow is quick to answer.
"Absolutely," she says. "I mean, I was a kid that knew every musician who played on every record, and part of the social experience of getting a new record was having all your friends come over and see the album cover for the first time and holding it in your hand and how it felt and all the little things that you picked out of the artwork. That was part of the experience of the music."
During a two-night stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium last month, Crow roared through a two-hours performance that included highlights from Wildflower and other material from her impressive career. The last time she played there was during a Johnny Cash tribute concert in 2004 when she sang "Hurt" for Cash's grieving family and admirers.
"That place has its own personality," she says of the Ryman and its significance. "When people come to see music there, they are aware of that and are absorbed by it and the unbelievable history that it has. You can't stand on that stage and not reflect on who's stood on that very spot before you. When you play there, you're inviting people into your intimate space, into your living room atmosphere. I think it's one of the great places to play in America."