Media & Entertainment
Brad Paisley was among the first people in Nashville to discover one of country music’s rising stars, a blonde singer-songwriter truly unlike any other up-and-comer.
It wasn’t just her knack for storytelling and her strong voice that set her apart–it was the fact that she’d already sold 35 million records. Her name: Sheryl Crow.
“One of the things [Paisley] said was, ‘You’ve been making this kind of music for years,’” Crow recalls. “‘Now it’s time for you to make a record for the format you belong to.”
The result, an album called Feels Like Home, hits stores today. It’s Crow’s eighth studio effort and her first in the country format; her single “Easy” notched her first Top 20 hit on the genre’s charts after 40 songs that landed in the Top 10 for other formats.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Crow would want to make the jump to country. In recent years, the genre has been one of the few bright spots for the music industry, enjoying a surge in popularity thanks in part to young crossover acts like Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum and Hunter Hayes.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, country music sales edged up 4.1% in 2012, while the genre’s digital album sales swelled 38%; both figures were the best of any genre. Led by Toby Keith‘s $65 million in earnings last year, country’s top ten moneymakers racked up $353 million–nearly 50% more than the ten top-earning DJs, who combined for $241 million.
“A big rock station might play a hit 100-plus times per week,” explained Keith’s manager in FORBES’ recent cover story on the singer. “A country station might play it 50 times. But they’ll play it forever.”
That sort of loyalty has lured a handful of big names to the genre—and they’ve experienced varying degrees of success. Bon Jovi made an attempt withLost Highway in 2007, but bounced back to rock one album later. Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee, which featured duets with pop-friendly country acts like Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts, was the second-best-selling album of any genre in the first half of 2012.
Former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, also featured on Tuskegee, made his solo debut as a country artist five years ago and has released three such albums in a row. He’s had success in the format partly because of his willingness to visit country radio stations to spread the word.
“It’s hard to argue with how wonderful a job Darius has done,” says John Esposito, the Warner Music Nashville chief who signed Crow. “The record company told him, ‘You’ve got to go out there and work like you’ve never sold a record in a life.’ You’ll still see in the trades that he’s out visiting country radio.”
Crow seems another likely candidate for a successful transition. Her pop-rock music has always contained some elements of country–think of the twangy edge in “All I Wanna Do” and her general focus on storytelling as a songwriter.
“I’m sort of like a suburb of country music,” she says. “And the city limits of the format absorbed me … one thing that’s really attractive about the country format is that it’s really the only format that you hear traditional song craftsmanship.”
That’s exactly what led Esposito to sign Crow earlier this year, shortly after he traveled to her farm on the outskirts of Nashville (where she’d moved in 2006 after being diagnosed with breast cancer, now in remission). He heard six songs from Feels Like Home–and liked their tone and construction so much that he had to tone down his body language in order to maintain a decent bargaining position. Recalls Esposito: “I’m thinking, ‘If I express how much I like it, the deal is going to get expensive.’”
After he heard ringing endorsements of Crow from Paisley, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, Esposito signed her to Warner (he wouldn’t discuss the terms of the deal, saying only that he hopes to be “in the Sheryl business” for “years to come”).
To help defuse any notion that she was a carpetbagger looking to capitalize on a booming genre, he advised Crow to follow Rucker’s lead and start making the rounds to country music stations. One of his staffers thought she’d visit 20 at best. Her total recently surpassed 85.
“When she walks up and points at my chest and says, ‘I’m going to work my ass off, I’m ready for this,’—and she did it on several occasions—she backs me up a little bit,” laughs Esposito. “[Each time], I said, ‘I believe you!’”
So far, so good: first-week sales numbers aren’t yet available, but Feels Like Home climbed to No. 3 on the iTunes Country Albums charts and cracked the overall top ten earlier this afternoon.
Crow will keep plugging the album while co-headlining a tour with Gary Allan (“I’m one of those annoying people that really likes touring,” she says) and hopes to open for a big country act on the road next year. Then, most likely, she’ll head back to the studio.
“I think I will continue on this course that I’m on,” she says. “Which is writing songs that are in the vein of how I’ve written for years and years … I still feel like my best work is in front of me.”
Want to learn more about the music business? Check out my book Empire State of Mind. I’m also working on a second: Michael Jackson, Inc, due out next year. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter and Facebook.