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Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow looks back at her years at MU

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Sheryl Crow accepts honorary degree

Missourian MU Chancellor Brady Deaton presents MU graduate Sheryl Crow with an Honorary Doctoral of Humane Letters degree in 2011 at the Honors Convocation ceremony at Mizzou Arena.

Sheryl Crow, a nine-time Grammy winner who has sold more than 35 million albums around the world, graduated from MU in 1984. She talked to Alex Jacobi for the Columbia Missourian on Sept. 30. Her most recent album is “Feels Like Home.”

Q. After high school, what made you want to go to Mizzou?

A. When I graduated high school from Kennett, Missouri, I wasn’t really thinking about going to a school far away. My sister was at Mizzou, and I had friends up there. I just decided that it would be a great place for me to go as a small-town girl.

Q. Why did you pick music composition, performance and education as a major?

A. Music was the one thing that I could do really well. And I love music; I grew up with musicians. I started piano when I was 7 years old. I just always loved it, so I decided that I would go into music. It was the one thing that I knew the best.

Q. If you could go back to Mizzou and pick another major, what would you pick?

A. I probably would pick literature or creative writing. It’s interesting — with music, unless you are extremely driven or beyond talented, it’s not likely that you’ll wind up making your living as a performer.

Also, you learn in music composition the rules of good composing, but then as a pop songwriter, you basically throw all those rules out, and you do exactly what the rules tell you not to do.

What probably would have been really helpful to me is to learn how to write prose and just writing in general for the purposes of writing great lyrics. But also I love literature. When you’re young, you’re really thinking about what kind of job you’re going to come out with.

If I had to do it over again, I’d probably major in literature.

Q. Were any professors at Mizzou your favorites and why?

A. Ah, yes, Raymond Herbert, who was my piano teacher. I loved Professor Herbert. He taught my sister; he taught me. I just love him so much.

I had Duncan Couch, who was the choral director; I really enjoyed him. Professor (John) Cheetham was in aural training; I also really enjoyed him. I loved all my music professors. I wasn’t the greatest music student, but I loved my professors.

Q. Why you weren’t the greatest music student?

A. I was not nearly as driven as a lot of kids. I mean, a lot of kids were beyond excellent. I could play by ear, so I was a little lazier, probably, than most.

Q. What were your favorite things to be a part of at Mizzou?

A. I played in a band called Cashmere, and we used to play at a bar called Bullwinkles (now The Field House). We played a lot of weekends there. We were a cover band. I really enjoyed my time playing a band; we played at a lot of campus functions as well.

I was also a Tiger hostess, which was kind of an honor. Several folks got interviewed and got picked to take the football recruits’ families around on football Saturdays. I got to meet a lot of interesting people that way.

The girls who were Tiger hostesses came from all walks of life, so that was really fun. I’m still in touch with some of the girls.

And I was also, believe it or not, an orientation leader one summer. I loved doing that. That was really fun, too, to take around kids who are coming out to look at Mizzou. I had a great time with the kids on the orientation committee.

Q. How do you think your time at Mizzou shaped who you are, both as a musician and person?

A. There were quite a few things that I wound up getting to do — like Tiger hostess and orientation leader — that you had to interview for. I think just the interview process was good for me.

I also think just the four years of growing up, for somebody who’s from a small town who hadn’t really traveled much, to go and live on my own, that is an invaluable experience. Going away for four years and really kind of growing up and maturing.

Q. What did you enjoy most about your time in college?

A. I really loved performing with the cover band. I loved going over to Europe for the first time, and Bulgaria and Romania. I was in a sorority called Kappa Alpha Theta, and some of my best friends are still my best friends from having been in Theta. I loved my whole time (at Mizzou). It was a great experience.

Q. What was your favorite place to eat at in Columbia?

A. Oh gosh, well, I didn’t really eat out very much because I was on a student (budget); my money was rationed. There was a good Mexican place we used to go for happy hour and get food. I can’t remember the name of it. We always went to Harpo’s. Harpo’s was a fun place.

Q. What were important milestones in your rise to fame after college, going from small-town Missouri to being known internationally?

A. Leaving college and going to St. Louis to teach school and then going to Los Angeles and auditioning for Michael Jackson. Then going on the road with Michael for a couple of years, all over the world. After that, getting a record deal, getting my first album. Then, after the first album came out and we toured for a long time, the Grammys. Winning some Grammys really put me on the map and changed the trajectory of my career. Those were the big milestones.

Q. You said in Rolling Stone magazine that if there had been a “Most Likely to Be a Rock Star” award in the yearbook, it wouldn’t have been you. So, what made you want to be a musician? Did you always think you would become a successful recording artist?

A. I did not always think I would become a successful recording artist. I surely wanted to. I always had a strong pull to write my own songs. I had older sisters who were good musicians and parents who were great musicians, and I wanted to be like them. And I loved performing. But it wasn’t necessarily something I thought was a shoo-in.

Q. So, if you don’t really feel like the rock-star type, what is it you love about performing?

A. I really love working at it. You hear that old adage, ‘Stay out of the outcome but stay in the process.’ I love the process, growing as a musician, being better at writing songs, learning to play new instruments, ultimately producing myself.

Just the art form in general is exciting to me. I wanted to write music that meant something and music that had something to say. I was not really ever into the whole stardom thing. So that part of the whole ‘rock star’ thing was not really my goal, nor was it really something that was that natural for me.

Q. So how has it been adjusting to that fame?

A. I come from a pretty solid family, and also I didn’t put out my first record until I was 30. I did a lot of work before that. I feel like I was pretty solidly planted, feet on the ground. So by the time I made it, there wasn’t really a big chance of me going off the deep end.

I just maintained working at it. When I became well-known, and all the paparazzi were around, that was just a weird thing to me. Now, this was 25 years ago, so it was a lot different than it is now. It’s much more realized now, the whole celebrity thing, but it wasn’t nearly in its full-blown state (then) like it is now. But, you know, you just handle it the way you handle it.

I made some really good decisions and some really bad choices, but that’s kind of indicative of life in general. But I had good people around me. I will say that.

Q. How has your upbringing in Missouri affected your music?

A. I think that your art imitates life, and I grew up with really solid people around me. My family, my parents, were just great examples to me. Having grown up in the Midwest gave me a sort of Midwestern attitude of being really solidly planted on the ground, and it’s just a great place to be from. I will always consider myself a Midwesterner, and I think that’s featured in my music and my lyric-writing.

Q. After being a pop-rock icon for years, what made you want to swap to country music in Nashville?

A. I always felt like the music I was making, songs like, “If It Makes You Happy,” were hand-in-hand with the tradition of country music, even more so than what’s being played on country radio now. So it doesn’t seem like that big of a departure for me, to switch over to that format. I didn’t really have to do so much changing everything, except for changing formats.

Q. Is country music something you’ve always been passionate about and wanted to do?

A. Country music was definitely a huge influence on me. The Rolling Stones went through a period where their music was basically country music. I loved Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris. I just wanted to make a great record that was full of good stories and coming from a place that was true to my life — a single mom, hardworking, grew up in the Midwest. I want my album to reflect that.

Q. Why do you think that storytelling is such an important part of music?

A. I don’t know that storytelling exists in other types of music. I don’t really hear a lot of storytelling in pop music or (other genres). You do hear it in rap music, although I don’t listen to a lot of rap music. I think country music is really the genre of music where you hear some of the best lyric writing and strong storytelling, and it’s always in the tradition of country music, all the way back to the beginning.

Q. Do you plan to go to the Homecoming game? If so, what are you most excited about?

A. I’m planning on it. Gosh, it’s going to bring back so many memories, and I’m going to get to see a lot of friends and I’ll probably visit the Theta house and try to hit some of the campus favorite spots, like Harpo’s. I don’t get up there very often, so I’m going to try to see as much as I can.

Q. What can fans expect to hear at your concert in Columbia?

A. We’ll definitely play the songs people know; we’ll probably try to play as many hits as possible. We’ll probably play a few songs people don’t know but hopefully will enjoy. We have a great band, just fantastic and fun to watch. And so, I think it’s gonna be a great night.

Q. If you could tell current students at Mizzou one thing, what would it be?

A. Try to savor every moment of your time there because you will probably make some of the longest-lasting relationships with people in those four years than you will ever make in your life.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

A. I came back a few years and got to tour Mizzou. I hadn’t been there in a while, and there’s been so much beautiful work done on the campus, but the one area that really hadn’t been updated was the music department. So one of the reasons I’m coming back is to hopefully be a part of helping update the music department — which was such a big part of my life — making it look and be as beautiful as the rest of campus.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

  • A graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who was previously a reporter and community outreach team member for the Columbia Missourian, an art director for Vox Magazine, and the editor for Vox Magazine's blog, VoxTalk.

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