NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For a couple of months now, Sheryl Crow has been loading her two young boys aboard a bus and taking off on a tour of country music radio stations around the country.
She's visiting with DJs and programming directors, playing a few songs live, then hopping back on the bus to do it again a few hours down the road. It reminds her, fittingly, of a scene from "Coal Miner's Daughter," the life story of Loretta Lynn.
"It really is like the scene where Doo zips up Loretta's dress and she runs in with her new acetate, her 45, and says, ‘Here's my new record,' and she plays something on air, shakes a few hands and leaves," Crow said. "It really is a throwback to that and it's the most organic thing I've done in years."
The image is fitting. It was Lynn's handwritten note asking Crow to appear with the honky-tonk queen on the 2010 Country Music Association Awards that started this journey toward the genre for the 51-year-old singer-songwriter. She has a single, "Easy," at country radio and will release her first country-oriented album, "Feels Like Home," on Sept. 10.
Crow recently spoke with The Associated Press about her new album, life in Nashville and continued questions about her former relationship with Lance Armstrong.
When Crow finished that performance with Lynn and Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley met her backstage and beseeched her to come home to the format she really belonged in. She'd had some success at country in the past, teaming with Kid Rock on "Picture" in 2002. The song was a modest hit and even scored them a vocal event of the year nomination at the 2003 Country Music Association Awards.
Crow thought about it and Paisley's message took hold. But it meant she would have to change things up and embrace Nashville's country music culture. Eventually, he helped kick start the new record, suggested producer Justin Niebank and introduced her to songwriter Chris Dubois, who served as a co-writer and informal song editor. She changed her songwriting tack, looking to match the more visceral, story-telling style of the genre.
And no one succeeds in country music without courting radio — thus the bus. Most of country music's biggest stars started that way and Crow — 20 years after releasing her first album, the five times platinum "Tuesday Night Music Club" — didn't see herself as exempt, no matter how many millions of albums she's already sold.
The first day of radio tour she hit larger markets like Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and some privately owned stations in smaller towns, too. One day, three states. Welcome to country.
"I say that it's fun, but it's the hardest thing I've ever done," Crow said. "Because sitting on the bus and only getting the gratification of only playing like a couple of songs, and then driving for two more hours and then getting to play a couple more songs. It's really hard, but it's great, you know? ... I've felt really embraced."
The aptly titled "Feels Like Home" serves as a figurative mile marker in her personal life as well. The title could easily refer to her new life in Nashville, where she moved seven years ago after beating breast cancer. She's since adopted two young sons, Levi and Wyatt, and settled into the creative community. Her kids go to school with the kids of other artists — she recently held a fund-raiser for a local school — and they all see each other at church.
"It's really idyllic," she said. "And the other great thing about it is I can get off the airplane and there's no paparazzi."
One fly in that ointment, however, has been persistent questions about her past relationship with ex-fiance Armstrong and what she may have known during her relationship with the disgraced cyclist who recently admitted to doping. She made brief remarks during an Entertainment Tonight interview at the time of the admission, but has not addressed it since — and says she won't.
"The only thing I would say about Lance is that his story is completely his own and has nothing to do with my life, and so I don't speak about it," Crow said. "I was asked a question on a TV show once, which caught me off-guard, and I feel like I kind of answered it, and that's all I can say about it. It really has zero relevance, and I'm sorry that people still want to attach me to that, but it holds no relevance to my life."
These days her life is more about blending in, something she can do in Nashville. Crow, who appears on The Voice on Tuesday night, embraced the Music City lifestyle in the studio, too. Each song of her eighth album's 12 tracks was co-written with another songwriter, a first. She brought in old songwriting friend Jeff Trott, but she also worked with Nashville songwriters and even enlisted Paisley to co-write a song, "Waterproof Mascara."
"I made Brad Paisley write a chick song about being a single mom," she said excitedly.
Niebank, a Grammy-winning producer and engineer, said Crow had the framework for the songs in place and despite the new direction displayed the self-assuredness that led her to pop stardom and beyond at the height of her career.
"I know it seems odd, but when I grew up the greatest musician in the room should be the person with their name on the album," Niebank said. "They should be the best person in the room by a mile. And nowadays on a lot of records they're not the best person in the room. They have to be technically manipulated and everything, but there's a lot more celebrity and PR manipulation to make them an artist. She's the exact opposite of that. She actually runs the session. That's how great musicians work."
T Bone Burnett, the "Nashville" musical director who recently worked with Crow on the Stephen King-John Mellencamp project "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," thinks her shift of focus is a natural one.
"Well, she's from Missouri — that's just about as country as you can get," Burnett joked. "So, I think she fits great, especially with what's going on now in country music. At this point, she's kind of a traditionalist in the country world."
Back in Nashville, Crow talked about the new album as she drove to the gym for a gymnastics class with her 3-year-old. She wasn't worried about her makeup or prying eyes and can go to the grocery store any time she wants.
"It wasn't until I moved here that I realized what an amazing community it is," she said. "It's the thing I've been missing my whole career, the feeling of being able to sit around with a guitar and have people know each other's songs and know songs from people who've influenced all of us. When I moved here pretty early on Vince Gill started calling me to do guitar pulls, and I thought, gosh, this is just like heaven on earth down here."