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 Sessions show 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 Sessions seemed 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 Lynne is to Lynne what the The Red Headed Stranger was 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 Club album 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 Lynne is 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 Lynne comes from hearing a world-class singer finally take on musical genres that she'd always wanted to attempt but never had been allowed to.
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.
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.
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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.
"It's hard no matter what," she says of songwriting. "Really hard. I think the songs write themselves in the time that they're supposed to fall on the paper. I don't worry about it too much, 'cause whatever happens, happens.
"But the songwriting thing, that's just a magical moment that happens at the right time. If I have an idea, I'll fool around with it, but if I don't, I'm not gonna sit down and try to think up one. I've got too much to do for that."
Shelby Lynne is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 28, at Alice Cooper'stown, with David Mead. Showtime is 8 p.m.