Shelby Lynne, like musicians such as Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang who preceded her, was destined to become famous as an exceptionally gifted singer and songwriter whose talent proved too broad for the confines of country music. “Unlike many more popular artists,” noted Miriam Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “whose pleasant voices tend to sound interchangeable on radio, Lynne can wrap her pipes around a song to squeeze every choke, growl and he-done-me-wrong out of it. She has the guts and delivery of Patsy Cline laid over the choo-choo boogie of Asleep at the Wheel.” Though she walked away with the Academy of Country Music Award for best new female artist in 1991 and was hawked as a mainstream country singer early in her career, Lynne’s roots are nonetheless firmly planted in history, beckoning back to Dusty Springfield’s Memphis-era recordings, as well as the nearly-forgotten western swing, big-band sound of Bob Wills. At the same time, however, Lynne mines the past sparingly, most notably on her acclaimed 2000 release I Am Shelby Lynne, enabling her own identity to filter through.
A teen phenomenon in the 1980s signed the day she arrived in Nashville, Lynne, a small girl with a grand, soulful voice, seemed poised for stardom. However, after three record deals - none of which yielded significant radio hits - Nashville’s Music Row had given up hopes of making Lynne the next Patty Loveless or Tanya Tucker. Not only could she belt out torch songs and country standards on a par with the best, Lynne could also sing in other tones: “a drooping twang, a bluesy moan, conversational asides or the confiding delicacy of a jazz singer,” wrote John Parles in a New York Times review. A notorious Nashville rebel to boot, Lynne failed to fit into the country music industry’s cookie-cutter ideal. “I was miserable,” she admitted to Spin magazine’s Mark Schone, recalling the days when she felt as though her singing career had ended. “I was quitting the business; I didn’t feel anybody believed in me as somebody who had something real to offer.” Nonetheless, Lynne never held any doubts about her unquestionable talent or career choice. “I was born a star,” she added. “That’s not the issue.”
Born on October 22, 1968, in Quantico, Virginia, Shelby Lynne Moorer was raised in the South Alabama swamp town of Jackson in the even smaller settlement of Frankville, population 150. Lynne discovered her love for music and performing at the tender age of four, when her father, a high school English teacher, lifted the youngster onto a table at Shakey’s Pizza in Mobile and she sang “You Are My Sunshine” for all the other patrons. “I’ve always been serious about my music, since I picked up the guitar when I was eight and taught myself to play,” Lynne told Longino. “Anything I do musically is natural, and I sing it the way I feel at the time. Each song usually takes me somewhere, and I go.”
A self-described tomboy and outcast at school who, by the age of ten preferred listening to old Elvis Presley records, singing, and playing guitar over making friends and studying, Lynne found comfort from an unhappy childhood in her music. She grew up on her father’s Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings albums, as well as rock and roll music from the 1950s and 1960s, compliments of her mother, a legal secretary. At home, the young singer also discovered her grandmother’s 78s, memorizing songs by Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Mills Brothers.
With her records spinning, Lynne would practice singing, using a hairbrush for a microphone and dreaming of one day becoming a star herself. Her mother, along with sister Allison, would on occasion join in, and when Lynne was fifteen, the harmonizing trio cut a single, a cover of the Four Knights’ song “Couldn’t Stay Away From You”. Although the recording made little impact, it did help spark two careers - that of Lynne, and eventually that of her younger sister, Allison Moorer, who in 1999 won an Academy Award nomination as co-writer of the song “A Soft Place to Fall” from the film The Horse Whisperer, and by 2000 had recorded two country albums for MCA Records. Lynne’s father also contributed to the project, the flip side of the single being one of his own originals. “His songs were kind of that whole Dylanesque, I’m-a-travelin’-man type of thing,” she recalled to Schone. “When I look at them, I can see this dude was sharp.”
However, Lynne’s father, a heavy drinker who abused his wife, didn’t live to see whether the record would spark his career. “I loved and admired him,” Lynne said softly of her father in an interview with Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn. “But we just fought all the time. We were too much alike. Daddy had a drinking problem, and I was the only human being on Earth who ever stood up to him. I think he was a brilliant man with no outlet, very frustrated.” In 1985, her mother fled with the two girls to nearby Mobile, but her father soon discovered their whereabouts. And in 1986, in front of a 17-year-old Lynne and her sister, he shot his wife to death before taking his own life.
Critics repeatedly made the narrow assumption that her pain caused her talent and artistry to surface, a connection that Lynne always detested. “Everyone says, ‘She’s so good [a singer] because this happened’ or ‘She’s so difficult because . . . ,’“ Lynne, known for her own drinking and rebellious nature, forcefully said, “Maybe so, but only partially. I was just as damn difficult when I was seven years old as I was when I was 18. My father always told me to be an individual, and I’ve remembered that every day of my life.”
After the tragedy, the girls moved in with their grandmother who broadened Lynne’s musical interests to include rhythm and blues and jazz singers. However, Lynne wanted to be on her own, and at 18, she married and moved to Nashville. The marriage lasted less than two years, but Lynne had already made important strides with her career. In the wake of a buzz generated by demo tapes as well as a chance appearance in October of 1987 singing on the TNN network’s Nashville Now, she found herself recording a duet entitled “If I Could Bottle This Up” with George Jones and working with Billy Sherrill, one of the most influential producers in country music. The hit-making artists he worked with included, among others, Jones, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, David Houston, Barbara Mandrell, Janie Fricke, and Johnny Paycheck.
“Isn’t she something?” Sherrill said, recollecting his days of working with Lynne. “I thought she was the best thing I ever heard in my life, country-wise, but I couldn’t get across to the people who ran the company how good she was. She’s definitely her own person, but people are wrong when they say she’d never listen to reason. What she wouldn’t listen to is idiots.” Country superstar Willie Nelson, who shared a label, manager, and eventually a stage with the young singer expressed a similar sentiment. “To me, she’s as good as Billie Holiday, but I knew she was going to have trouble being commercially successful in Nashville. They don’t know what to do with someone that talented.”
Thus, Lynne’s five Nashville albums for various labels revealed only occasional moments of interest. Signing with Epic Records - for whom she recorded three country-pop albums - Lynne released the Sherrill-produced Sunrise in 1989. “It’s a record by a little-bitty, green, eager singer who’s desperate to please,” she told Uncut’s Nigel Williamson, as quoted by Eric Weisbard in the Village Voice. Lynne dismissed her second Epic release, 1990’s Tough All Over, as “crap commercial country,” though it contained traces of rhythm and blues as well. Lynne called her final album for Epic (the tepid Soft Talk released in 1991) as “my rebellion.”
By 1992, Lynne began to chafe at the style of music Epic pushed her to record. “I was very headstrong and a little crazy,” the singer recalled to Marc Weingarten of the Washington Post. “I wanted to have things right for me, but I didn’t know what right was. There are good songs in Nashville, but you have to have the patience to find the right tunes. I wish I had known that then.” Frustrated with her label’s demands, Lynne left Epic. “That was when I started taking control of how I wanted to make records. I had at that point decided I’m not gonna be able to do this until I do it for me.”
Striking out on her own, Lynne remained without a label for two years. During this time, the singer focused on writing songs for the first time. Those originals ended up on her acclaimed 1993 album for the short-lived Morgan Creek label entitled Temptation, an album that sought to recreate the big-band Western swing era and demonstrated Lynne’s versatility. After Morgan Creek folded, Lynne moved to Nashville’s most impacting independent label, Magnatone Records, to record 1995’s Restless. Here, Lynne mixed country, bluegrass, big band, and blues into an electrifying concoction, but she would later disavow the stab at another mainstream country album.
Tired of Nashville, Lynne put her singing career on hold in 1997 and moved into a rented “camp” house in Mobile Bay. Soon thereafter, she found hope in Bill Bottrell, whose roots-tinged production on Sheryl Crow’s 1995 debut Tuesday Night Music Club she greatly admired. Through a former manager, Lynne had sent a demo tape to Betty Bottrell, the producer’s wife and manager. From the onset, Bottrell encouraged Lynne to drop the pretense of her upbeat songs and face the tragedies in her life through her writing, including what her father had done. “I kind of forced her to do that, and we spent months on it. The song [about the death of Lynne’s parents] is called ‘The Sky is Purple,’ and it’s not on the album. But that’s sort of how she learned to do confessional songwriting.”
A creative breakthrough, the painful song helped the developing songwriter to further explore her own feelings about ruined relationships and self-doubt. Other songs that explored the darker side included “Why Can’t You Be?”, a tune she scribbled while upset and drinking on a plane, as well as “Life is Bad”, a song full of images of blood, tombs, and sinking ships that she wrote in ten minutes one morning. Lynne also returned to some of her musical roots, aside from country, as well, spending hours re-examining the songs of Springfield, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and the Band, all of which influenced the music for her personal lyrics.
When Lynne and Bottrell took the album to label executives, I Am Shelby Lynne was met with enthusiasm. “We were knocked out,” recalled Island Records executive Jim Caparro. “We all felt she made a brilliant record.” However, not wanting the album to fall through the cracks, Island took time to put together a special marketing plan, which included releasing I Am Shelby Lynne first in England, hoping to attract attention across Europe before bringing it to the United States. The plan worked, and reviews and sales in England - and later back home - were sensational. “When the reviews started coming in from Europe, she finally felt validated,” noted Bottrell.
While patiently awaiting the album’s release in America, Lynne, in the spring of 1999, moved to Palm Springs, California, well outside the orbit of the major music cities. “The sun is out all the time, and nobody’s here. The only way to make a change is to do it radically.” Here, Lynne lives in a sleek, retro-modern house modeled on the landmark residences built by legendary Palm Springs architect Albert Frey. Reveling in a solitary lifestyle, Lynne spends most of her time writing songs, reading, cruising the desert highways in a black 1960s Cadillac listening to hip-hop, or hanging out at a Rat Pack-era bar/restaurant called Melvyn’s.
Lynne began working on a follow-up with producer Glen Ballard, best known for his work with Alanis Morissette. Love, Shelby appeared later in 2001 but was received with confusion and disappointment by many reviewers, mainly because of its smoother, less country-infused production. Two years later, Lynne returned to form with Identity Crisis. Her debut release for Capitol, it was her most sensitive album yet. Suit Yourself appeared in spring 2005. In 2008 an homage to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin', produced by Phil Ramone, was released on Lost Highway.
With Tears, Lies, and Alibis (2010) the follow-up to 2008’s Just A Little Lovin’ and the first release on her own label, Everso Records, Shelby Lynne affirms her position as a visionary, iconoclastic artist who deftly weaves country, soul, rock, blues, pop and folk influences to forge her own unique style. Like Identity Crisis (2003) and Suit Yourself (2005), this sparse, unguarded collection was produced by Lynne, who evokes a live-in-the-studio vibe from a stellar group of musicians.
Revelation Road (2011) is Shelby's most personal record yet. She wrote, recorded and produced the album, which leads off with the title track and first single, a stirring reflection on reckoning and redemption. From Country to Pop and back again, this is Shelby at her finest.