Tough All Over

A lifetime of ups and downs helps 'Bama songbird Shelby Lynne craft a stunning Southern pop masterpiece

A few weeks ago, Willie Nelson was the featured artist on the weekly PBS live-music show, Sessions at West 54th.Over the course of his hourlong performance, it slowly began to sink in that the petite blond vocalist to Nelson's left was not your run-of-the-mill backup singer. It was Shelby Lynne, architect of what is arguably the finest pop record released this year, the aptly titled I Am Shelby Lynne.

Lynne and Nelson have been friends for nearly a decade, and they've sung together many times, but what was intriguing about the Sessionsshow was the subtle way it revealed what a genuine music fan Lynne is. Perfectly content to lend a few touches of high harmony to Nelson's nasal whine, Lynne was so stoked to be onstage with one of her heroes that even when she had nothing to contribute, she happily stood behind the band and swayed to the beat while they played.

For someone so often branded as sullen, temperamental and demanding, the Lynne that appeared on Sessionsseemed remarkably gracious. Doing absolutely nothing to call attention to herself, she seemed devoid of the kind of ego-mongering routinely shown by lesser talents.

Of course, Lynne has plenty of reasons to identify with Nelson. Like Willie, Lynne is an eclectic maverick who spent years trying to adapt to Nashville's song-factory mentality, before finally moving out and finding her true voice. Along those lines, I Am Shelby Lynneis to Lynne what the The Red Headed Strangerwas to Nelson in 1975: a career-defining album that redeems and justifies all the headaches that came before it.

During a break from a demanding 2000 tour schedule, Lynne explains her special bond with the king of the country outlaws.

"It's always been so cool with Willie, 'cause we walked in the first day we met and it was like we knew each other," says Lynne, who plans to perform next month at Nelson's legendary Fourth of July picnic in Texas. "But we've never talked about the business or anything. When we get together, we just talk about the weather, you know?"

If Lynne seems slightly evasive, that's par for the course with this 31-year-old Alabama native. But you get the sense that what music-biz types perceive as arrogance or hostility is more likely shyness, a peculiarly Southern insecurity about her ability to express herself in conversation. As a result, she almost invites you to believe that she's a boring person living an uneventful life.

For instance, when asked what attracted her to her current home, the chichi retirement haven of Palm Springs, California, Lynne says: "I love the desert. There's nothing here, you know? I don't go out or anything. I don't really like to. If I go out, it's because there's something going on that I have to do. I like it here. I can just kind of retreat and be at home, and not do anything else but be at home."

Similarly, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone,she casually brushed off questions about her teenage years, saying, "I don't think I did anything. I was so music-crazy and trying to get better on guitar, I just stayed by myself a lot, in my room."

In fact, Lynne's well-documented teen experience was a bit more dramatic than she lets on. After one explosive argument with her father, he called the cops and had her sent to jail. When she was 17, her father shot her mother to death and then turned the gun on himself, all in front of Shelby and her younger sister (country singer Allison Moorer). At 18, Lynne got married -- an impulsive idea that didn't take -- and moved to Nashville, where no less an authority than George Jones swiftly hailed her as the finest voice in country music.

But eight years and five albums later, Lynne had not found the stardom Nashville envisioned for her, and she was fed up with being forced to cut bland tunes, backed by the same set of studio pros that turn up on every record made in Music City. She moved back to Alabama and considered giving up, when she heard Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Clubalbum and decided to track down its producer, Bill Bottrell.

Bottrell was semi-retired when Lynne came calling, but he was drawn to her demo tape and decided to give production another shot. Working for the first time at her own pace, Lynne found a sympathetic collaborator in Bottrell. They created a warm, unusually intimate sound by doing most of the recording themselves. Aside from strings and a few other incidental overdubs, I Am Shelby Lynneis basically a record made by two people.

"We'd write the song and go and cut it right away," Lynne says. "We just didn't want to use a bunch of musicians on the record. There wasn't really any need in it. It was easier to write the song, and we'd be excited, and we'd build a record around a guitar and vocal."

A big part of the thrill of I Am Shelby Lynnecomes from hearing a world-class singer finally take on musical genres that she'd always wanted to attempt but never had been allowed to.

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