I’m playing “Name That Tune” with Sheryl Crow, and she’s getting a little frustrated.
After I feed her a lyric from her 1993 hit “All I Wanna Do” (“But I’m sure he’s Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy”), I ask if she can recite the line that precedes it. She sings a bar of the song, stops for a minute, then bursts into laughter. “You sort of have to go through the whole song to come up with one lyric,” she says. “It’s hard! I’m the queen of having the worst memory.”
One can hardly blame Crow for being a little distracted. The musician is in the midst of a national tour, promoting her upcoming album “Feels Like Home” and prepping for an Aug. 9 pit stop in Chicago, where she’ll perform at Macy’s Glamorama, a fashion show and concert to benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana.
And there’s an added challenge: As a single mom, Crow, 51, is charged with keeping her two sons, 6-year-old Wyatt and 3-year-old Levi, entertained every step of the way. “My days revolve around them now,” she says. “It’s very different from how I used to tour, when I could sleep in, stay up late, be creative whenever I wanted to be creative. But it’s great — it keeps me alive and fresh and interested.”
Her touring schedule isn’t the only thing that’s changed about Crow over the course of her 20-year career. She sums up her personal and professional evolution simply: “I’m braver.” Crow credits that newfound nerve to a series of life-altering events. “I’ve gone through a lot,” she says. “I’ve had breast cancer, I’ve had numerous high-profile and emotional breakups, I’ve adopted my two boys. I’ve had a lot of life experience, and I think my art has grown because of that.”
Recording “Feels Like Home,” out Sept. 10, certainly required a degree of courage for the 32-time Grammy nominee — the alt-country album marks a dramatic departure from the classic-rock and pop sounds that have fueled her success. “It just seemed like a logical transition to make,” she says. “I live in Nashville now, I’ve had friends there for 20 years and it’s my community. Brad Paisley came up to me and said, ‘When are you gonna make the record in the format you should have been at a long time ago?’ ”
While Crow is confident that the album hews to her rock ’n’ roll roots, she says it also speaks to her newer, more grounded lifestyle. “There’s one song, ‘Waterproof Mascara,’ that’s really about being a single mom. ‘Homesick’ is about being gone, trying to keep the home fires burning when you travel,” she says. “For the better part of my career, I traveled a lot, and never felt like I had roots anywhere. Making music in Nashville, raising my boys there … this is the first time I feel like I really have a home, and that’s what’s behind the record.” That down-to-earth aesthetic is even reflected in Crow’s choice of recording studio: her barn.
“Brad Paisley came up to me and said, ‘When are you gonna make the record in the format you should have been at a long time ago?’ ”
Crow initially headed to Nashville after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, boldly determined to shed the trappings of fame and seek out a “normal” life. She found it almost immediately. “I run into other people who do what I do, and they’re just going to church, shopping at Whole Foods, taking their kids to the park,” she says. “So my kids don’t really care that I’m famous, because their best buddies’ parents do the same thing. They’ll hear [Brad Paisley’s] song on the radio, and say, ‘Oh, there’s Huck’s dad.’ It’s not impressive to them at all.”
Even as she’s put down roots in Tennessee, Crow retains an affinity for Chicago, which she calls her “favorite city in America.” “I don’t know if I could live there through the winter,” she laughs. “But I feel really inspired in Chicago.”
Her soft spot for the Windy City is part of the reason she signed on to headline Glamorama, held this year at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. “It’s a celebration, but it’s also helping out this great charity in Chicago, and a lot of families, a lot of kids,” she says. “I’m proud to be bringing people together for something that has such far-reaching effects.”
The cause is a personal one for Crow, who knows firsthand about living through adversity. After overcoming breast cancer, Crow faced yet another health scare in 2012: a benign brain tumor. Juxtaposed with a very public breakup from longtime love Lance Armstrong, the diagnosis caused Crow to restructure her priorities once more. “I can say that my life never looked or felt the same again,” she says. “It’s one of those moments that grabs your attention. So you start qualifying how you want the rest of your life to look, you’re easier on yourself and you seize every day as an opportunity.”
Case in point: In the audience at a Hall & Oates show in May, Crow felt a spontaneous urge to join in on the fun. “I’d had a couple beers, and I hadn’t seen them in forever,” she says, laughing. “All of a sudden, bravery set in, and I ran out onstage and started singing ‘She’s Gone’ with them. I wasn’t invited — I think they were shocked. It was probably sort of obnoxious.”
All of the turmoil also helped Crow develop a sense of perspective, making it easier to laugh off even her most high-profile mistakes as a performer. “I’m sure there are embarrassing moments of mine all over YouTube,” she says. “Times when I’ve missed a lyric, or blown a guitar cord, but I can’t really dwell in that world. That’s just music.”
Having finally found her niche both at home and in the studio, Crow says she devotes little time to looking back. “It’s futile, ” she says. “I always feel like my best work is in front of me. I want to continue to make music that has integrity and to continue to grow, to stay interested and curious. That’s what keeps me going.”
Name that tune: We gave Sheryl a line from one of her hit songs, and asked her to sing the one before it:
Splash: ‘I’ve never been there but the brochure looks nice.’
Sheryl: OK, that’s ‘Every Day is a Winding Road.’ [Sings] ‘Been there once or twice’ … ‘I used to ride with a vending machine repair man … ’ I can’t think.
Splash: ‘He was high on intellectualism.’
Sheryl: Ah, OK.
Splash: ‘I spent the best part of my losing streak in an Army Jeep.’
Sheryl: Yes, that’s ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’ [Long pause, then sings] ‘Life springs eternal on a gaudy neon street … ’
Splash: You got it!
Splash: ‘But you won’t catch this free bird, I’ll already be long gone.’
Sheryl: ‘Steve McQueen!’ Um. The line before it … ‘Call me on my cellphone, you can page me all night long.’
Splash: ‘You listen to Coltrane, derail your own train.’
Sheryl: ‘You’ve been down, real low down.’
Splash: You got it.
Sheryl: [Laughs] OK, cool.