Tough All Over

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

Her affection for Memphis soul comes through on the breakup lament, "Leavin'," where she single-handedly creates a bed of backing vocals to rival the Sweet Inspirations in their prime. Her overlooked penchant for torch balladry surfaces on the haunting closer, "Black Light Blue," a tune that wouldn't have been out of place on Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours. And the thunderous "Your Lies" sounds like a dream marriage of Phil Spector wall-of-sound production with Dusty Springfield's elegant crooning on top.

But what really elevates the album above blue-eyed-soul pastiche is the inventive spin that Lynne gives to a largely forgotten form of slick Southern pop that briefly flourished in the late '60s: music made by people like Bobbie Gentry, Glen Campbell and Tony Joe White.

When the strings on I Am Shelby Lynne don't evoke the rural claustrophobia of Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," they recall the gothic weepiness of White's "Rainy Night in Georgia." It's also little coincidence that Lynne has been covering Campbell's finest record, "Wichita Lineman," on recent tour stops. This is lush, sophisticated music with a backwoods twang, and on I Am, Lynne not only makes the genre her own, she takes it to a new level of expressiveness.

The defiant one, Shelby Lynne: "I said, 'Screw this trying to get on the radio stuff. I might as well make a record I like.'"
The defiant one, Shelby Lynne: "I said, 'Screw this trying to get on the radio stuff. I might as well make a record I like.'"

Lynne delivered the album to Island Records in January of 1999, but the label, caught up in the confusion of the blockbuster Polygram merger, decided to hold back the record's American release for a year. For Lynne, who'd already waited a decade to make her kind of record, it was yet another small dose of frustration.

"It was hard," she says matter-of-factly. "It took a year to make it, and then I gave it to them in January, and it came out in September over in the U.K. So it was a long wait. But there was plenty to do. I did showcases and tried to get a band together. I try to stay as busy as possible, during most times."

Fully aware that recapturing the album's quirky charm onstage would be next to impossible, Lynne has instead opted to go for a full-throttle live sound. It's not only allowed her to kick up the decibels on her own tunes, but also to assault her most relentless demons with a brutal live cover of John Lennon's "Mother," which has become a show-stopping encore.

"I always tell the bands I've had to listen to the record and learn the record, but give me something as good or better," she says. "I don't hold them down to details. It's a different thing. You just can't duplicate a record. I know a lot of people do, and that's why their shows are sterile and boring, so I just try to let a song take on a new life with a live group."

While the new album is her obvious artistic breakthrough, there were signs of Lynne's idiosyncratic nature as early as 1993, when she went against the grain in Nashville by recording Temptation, an album of convincing big-band swing. The record not only offered the first hint of Lynne the songwriter, but it found her several years ahead of a swing revival that would engulf pop culture in the late '90s.

"I thought, 'Damn, I'm too early,'" Lynne says of her reaction to the swing movement. "But that was the music I grew up on, listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and really loving swing -- even big-band music like Duke Ellington and the early Quincy Jones stuff with Count Basie, or when he did a record with Brook Benton back in the day.

"When I made that record, I said, 'Screw this trying to get on the radio stuff, it's not gonna happen. I might as well make a record I like.'"

It's an idea that reaches full flower on I Am, but the creative partnership between Lynne and Bottrell seems destined to be a one-time miracle. Their working relationship was stormy at best, and it's been further complicated by the fact that Bottrell's ex-wife Betty is Lynne's manager. In fact, Lynne shares a home with Betty in Palm Springs.

When asked about the possibility of re-teaming with Bottrell, Lynne briefly becomes the curt figure of legend and coldly snaps, "No." When asked what direction her next album might take, she seems almost defiantly unsure.

"No clue," she says. "Not thinking about it, won't think about it. I just don't believe in planning anything. I just like to let things happen."

It's taken a decade of hard knocks to give her such an appreciation for intuition and the power of an artist's internal clock. The big question for Lynne is whether her newfound contentment could be a mixed blessing for someone who's become such an expert chronicler of her own pain.

It's a question she seems to ask herself in the song "Why Can't You Be?," when she ponders: "What the hell's wrong with living without the blues?" These days, you get the sense that even if she doesn't trust much else, she trusts that the muse won't ever leave her for long.

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