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LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - As a young child one Christmas in Kennett, Mo., Sheryl Crow received a present that would change her life: a copy of the Jackson 5's "ABC." It was the first record she ever owned.
"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, Crow has the credibility and star power to record an album in any genre she wants. "100 Miles From Memphis" (released July 20 on A&M Records), whose title refers to 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. "We looked at places where her audience may be that may not be traditional music spots," Interscope Geffen A&M vice chairman Steve Berman says.
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 (that) you have a social place where you can be a part of that is great."
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 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'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.
"My last record was very commentary-driven, very sociopolitical, 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. 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.
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."