|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
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Sheryl CrowNo Fool to This Game
By RICHARD BUSKIN
BILLBOARD BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Richard Buskin
All right reserved.
In the Bootheel
Heading south towards the Missouri-Arkansas border, the I-55 cuts a crooked line through low-lying flatlands that are within 150 miles of Nashville to the east and the Ozarks to the west. Small towns are bypassed: Jaywye, Portageville, Wardell.... At the Hayti exit a right turn onto Route 84 leads past a gas station listing the prices of unleaded, mid-grade, premium, diesel, and a fifth of Jack Daniels. Welcome to farm country.
As the two-lane highway darts through fields of soybean and cotton, its curbs run parallel to a motley collection of tractors, homes, food shacks, convenience stores, dilapidated auto repair shops, and small houses of worship pronouncing "Exposure to the Son may prevent burning" and "Wrinkled with burden? Come to church for a faith lift." Several churches and businesses are boarded up; others are attached to trailers that function as extra office space. Up ahead, Hayti Heights, then Bakerville, then "Welcome to Kennett. Service, agriculture, industry."
Just over 90 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, in the southern heel of the Missouri boot, about 20 miles west of the Mississippi River, lies Kennett, population 10,941. Officially part of the Midwest-a misnomer if ever there was one-the city has adefinite Southern feel, as do Dunklin County, in which it is located, and the entire Bootheel region.
Kennett's inhabitants speak with a distinct Southern drawl; they feast on fried catfish, barbecue, grits, butterbeans, and black-eyed peas; and they'll invariably shop for goods, services, and entertainment in Memphis rather than trek 200 miles north to St. Louis. Both emotionally and geographically, these people are far removed from the state capital of Jefferson City. In historical terms it's easy to see why.
Located in the southwestern tip of the Bootheel region, Dunklin County was named after Daniel Dunklin, Governor of Missouri from 1832 to 1836. Nearly 50 miles in length and 540 square miles in total area, the county was established in 1845, and Kennett was laid out as its seat the following year. Situated on a Delaware and Shawnee Indian village site, the town was initially known as Chilletecaux, before changing its name to Butler and then, in 1851, to Kennett, in honor of St. Louis mayor Luther M. Kennett. It was incorporated as a city in 1873.
In the meantime, the Civil War divided Missouri, and Dunklin County even went so far as to declare itself the "Independent State of Dunklin" after adopting an 1862 resolution to secede from the union. The following year, Union troops paid a brief visit to Kennett. Guerrilla raiders hung around a while longer. Still, there wasn't a whole lot to fight over. Thanks to liquefaction resulting from the 1811 earthquake in neighboring New Madrid-the most violent trembler ever recorded in North America-the region was a largely uninhabitable mess of swampland and forests; a haven for hunters and trappers, but little else. Then, in 1878, recovery commenced with the arrival in nearby Malden of the Little River Valley & Arkansas Cotton Belt railroad, a branch of which reached Kennett in 1890. Three years later, the state provided for the organization of county drainage districts and levees on the St. Francis River, along the Bootheel's western border with Arkansas. This kick-started a program of land reclamation, leading to the implementation in 1905 of the Little River Drainage System, which utilized canals, levees, and ditches to secure more than two million agricultural acres.
Southern cotton farmers, anxious to escape the devastating effects of the voracious boll weevil, began relocating to the Bootheel, as did black field hands from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and by 1920 they had transformed the region into the northernmost land of cotton. What's more, they had also enhanced its Southern feel, while imbuing it with a solid strain of African-American culture that is evident not only in gastronomic terms, but also in the Bootheel's strong tradition of gospel music.
As Dunklin County developed into a noted cotton, soybean, and livestock farming area, Kennett profited from several local railroads serving both Missouri and Arkansas. This, in turn, helped it evolve into the largest community and trade center for the two-state area. Today, home to producers of electric motors, railcar components, steel, cotton seed, soybeans, and sunflower oil, Kennett is similar in appearance to numerous other modest communities dotted throughout the American heartland-rural yet industrialized, while also melding modern economics with the postbellum South.
A city by designation, this is basically a small town in all other respects, and contained within its borders is the usual array of old-time, mom 'n' pop establishments-the Mitchell Drug Store, Bill Horton's Bar-B-Que, North Delta Cotton, the Kennett Bowling Lanes ("Friday Night All You Can Bowl")-juxtaposed with the inevitable presence of Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. These symbols of corporate America are relatively new intruders, providing their homogenized goods to a tight-knit community that derives much of its news from the eighteen pages of the Daily Dunklin Democrat, as well as from the socializing that takes place in the neighborhood's thirty-plus churches.
In this Bible Belt stronghold, people not only share in each other's lives, but also in a past that saw most of their ancestors migrate to Kennett from nearby Bootheel locales or from Missouri's neighboring states. The Crows are no exception. In 1846, the same year that Kennett became the seat of Dunklin County, Sheryl's great-great-grandfather, James L. Crow, was born in Tennessee, the birthplace of both his parents. Growing up to be a farmer, James married a local girl named Rachel, and together they moved to Sikeston in Scott County, towards the northeast of the Missouri Bootheel. There, in 1873, Rachel gave birth to their son Charles, Sheryl's great-grandfather.
Charles A. Crow subsequently became a politician and married Emma Gardner, a native of Campbell in northern Dunklin County, whose father was an Alabama farmer and mother an Arkansas housekeeper. Charles made the move to Campbell, and on November 13, 1911, Emma gave birth to Sheryl's paternal grandfather, Charles Augustus Crow. In 1930, Charles, Jr., married another Campbell native, Naomi Drue Wyatt, whose father, Esco, was a hardware store clerk from Gibson County, Tennessee. Her mother, Winnie Fyffer, was a homemaker from Lawrence County, Illinois.
Taking advantage of local opportunities, Charles worked as a levee contractor, and on New Year's Day, 1932, he and Naomi became the parents of a son who was given both of their last names: Wendell Wyatt Crow. Growing up in Caruthersville, a few miles east of Kennett in neighboring Pemiscott County, Wendell broke with family tradition by going to law school at the University of Missouri in Columbia, having graduated from Caruthersville High School in 1949. During his junior year he had penned the CHS song:
Our school to us is e'er our joy and pride.
We love its red and white,
We'll cherish and defend it far and wide.
Uphold its fame and might.
Dear school of ours, there'll never ever be,
Another school as good as you.
We'll pledge to you the best that we can give,
And always to our Caruthersville be true.
After graduating from "Mizzou," Wendell returned home to commence work as an attorney, while dating a Caruthersville girl five years his junior. Born at St. Louis's Bethesda Hospital on May 3, 1937, Bernice Cain started life in the northern part of Missouri. At that time, her father, Charles, was a thirty-three-year-old physician hailing from Tennessee; her mother, Janet Chilton, was born in 1911, in Van Buren, Missouri.
While Janet's father, Oliver Chilton (Sheryl's maternal great-grandfather, born 1884), was a newspaper editor in Van Buren, it was Sheryl's maternal great-grandmother, Sarah Austin (born 1887), who was first among the ancestors to utilize music in a professional capacity, working as a music teacher as well as a housewife. Sarah's granddaughter, Bernice Cain, also grew up with a love for music, and this was something that she shared with Wendell Crow, whom she married on June 30, 1955.
A petite, brunette woman from whom Sheryl would inherit her good looks, Bernice played the piano. Following in her grandmother's footsteps, she also gave lessons to earn some money. Wendell, on the other hand, indulged his passion for the trumpet while working as an attorney. From him Sheryl would inherit a number of self-acknowledged character traits, including tremendous self-motivation and an up-and-down disposition. Generally outgoing, alpha-type personalities, both father and daughter have a propensity for moodiness. Not for nothing is Sheryl adept at pouting with what a writer for the Times of London once described as "the sexiest top lip in the business."
"Sheryl is her father, in the best way, with her mother's talent," says family friend Brian Mitchell. "The ambition and career side, as well as her suspicion of the business, come strictly from her father, as do the hotheadedness, the determination, and the sense of self that can tend to be perceived as off-putting by certain people trying to court her. She also has her mother's ability and beauty in all senses of the word. Both parents are very creative. Wendell is well known around Kennett for one thing, and that's being extremely passionate in whatever he does-if the case goes to court, don't get in his way. He takes his work extremely seriously and he's incredibly single-minded, which of course is necessary in his profession."'
Although Wendell and Bernice each had serious musical aspirations, economic reality quickly led them in other career directions-those in which steady jobs would produce sufficient income to raise a family and, subsequently, provide their kids with the opportunities that they themselves had lacked.
Born in 1957, the couple's first child, Katherine, was initially raised in Caruthersville, but shortly before Bernice gave birth to Karen Elise in 1959, the Crows relocated to Kennett. After living in a tiny ranch-style property at 505 Maple Street, they moved one block west to a slightly larger brick house at 500 Emerson Street. This was the first place to be called home by Sheryl Suzanne Crow, who entered the world at 9:58 on the morning of Sunday, February 11, 1962, at Dunklin County Memorial Hospital.
In strictly local terms, it's a world whose way of life has changed little during the past forty years. Sure, things are more commercial now. Kennett had no Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, or Pizza Hut when Sheryl was born. Nor was there a 24-hour Wal-Mart Super Center, whose overwhelming presence would irrevocably alter the once-vibrant town square-some say destroy it-by forcing several small, long-established businesses to close down.
"Downtown Kennett was thriving when we were kids," says Sheryl's longtime friend Carlotta Tarver. "There was a Rexall drug store where we'd go for lunch, clothing stores, a dime store. All of them are gone, and the place now seems deserted. It's really sad."
Indeed, among the sole survivors in that central area are the county courthouse and the Mitchell pharmacy, whereas the old Cotton Exchange Bank building now houses a store named the Bank of Antiques. There, in a back room on the second floor, surrounded by toasters, glasses, kettles, pots, sofas, and 8-track cartridges, some secondhand apparel can be found next to a small sign stating, "These clothes belong to singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow. She gives us the hand-me-downs and the profit from sales goes to the Delta Children's Home in Kennett." The profit is modest: in this low-key setting, Sheryl's micro-miniskirts, leather pants, designer shoes, T-shirts, and tweed jackets go for anywhere from $10 to $50.
Elsewhere, the run-down stores and ramshackle houses that populated the city during the early '60s still survive. So, too, do the more upscale middle-class homes and the ever-present Kennett Country Club which, throughout the decades, has served as a weekly social haunt for many of the city's older residents. These are just some of the community members who turn up for the Delta Fair in the third week of September, where ladies submit their jams, pies, quilts, and baby pictures for competition, while others watch the rodeo. Everybody goes to the Delta Fair, a microcosm of Kennett life that caters to generational continuity. In recent years the organizers have tried to get Sheryl to sing there. She has declined. Not quite her scene. She's done other good things for the city.
"Very little changes in Kennett," remarks Debbie Welsh, another lifelong friend of Sheryl's, who now lives in Kansas City. "It's still largely the same people living in the same places."
This is probably why, for several years after Sheryl found fame and fortune, Wendell and Bernice continued to reside in the comfortable, unpretentious two-story, five-bedroom brick house to which they had moved shortly after their youngest child, Steven, was born in September 1966. Located on West Washington Street, across from Kennett High School, just a few blocks south of Emerson, this home was filled with music from day one, not least because it had four pianos on which the kids would often practice simultaneously while Bernice monitored their efforts from the kitchen.
Bernice and Wendell played in a local big band, and as many of the Wednesday night rehearsals took place at their house, the kids were exposed to plenty of jazz and swing sounds while they were growing up, along with the contemporary rock that emanated from the radio and hi-fi. As a result, the Crow household stood out even within the music-loving environs of Kennett, where church choirs form an integral part of the social fabric, and amateur and semi-pro musicians come a dime a dozen.
"They were very artsy and musical," Sheryl told author Marc Woodworth for his 1998 book Solo: Women Singer. Songwriters in Their Own Words. "When I was a kid, they listened to a lot of big bands, swing bands, and crooners. Don't ask me why, but I really related to that music. I can remember lying down by the Magnavox and listening over and over to Judy Garland singing 'But Not For Me.' I was six years old, and for some weird reason everything about that song represented me. That's my earliest recollection of how music could really strike you at the core."
There would soon be other examples.
"At the Country Club in the early years, everybody would just bring their musical instruments and they might get a session going," Debbie Welsh recalls. "There was a children's room-the old 'be seen and not heard' thing-and we'd be in there while everybody had fun.
Excerpted from Sheryl Crow by RICHARD BUSKIN Copyright © 2002 by Richard Buskin
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.