After a couple of decades of some of the finest country soul/roots, as solo artists, those most excellent sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer release their first album together this week. Wind Back Wednesday steps into the furnace with Ms Lynne in 2003 (next week we’ll visit Ms Moorer) and emerges scorched but alive.
I AM SHELBY LYNNE, AND YOU’RE NOT
Shelby Lynne don’t take no shit.
You can imagine this having been carved into park benches in Frankville, Alabama (on the Tombigbee River, about 20 minutes from Mobile) during the early ‘80s.
You can imagine it was written by some boy or girl who had mistaken the small frame and pixie face of a teenage Lynne for someone who would be a pushover: one of those always accommodating, southern polite kind of girls.
If she hadn’t already put a feisty spin on the world beforehand, Lynne had little choice at 17 when her alcoholic father shot her mother and then turned the gun on himself. It was up to her now to look after her younger sister Allison.
And up to her to carve a career, firstly as a country singer, then more recently as a soul singer of rare quality. (Interestingly a career replicated by her sister, who goes by the name Allison Moorer and has three excellent albums of her own.)
The country career put her through the maw of the Nashville machine for five albums – songs written by others, image designed by others, decisions made by others and finally success had by others.
Then she broke free in 1999, recorded an album where she wrote or co-wrote everything, sang soul-infused country and country-flecked soul and made sure her intentions were clear right from the cover where she wore a defiant look in her eyes under the title I Am Shelby Lynne. Cop that Nashville.
And cop that again when the follow-up album Love, Shelby, took a further turn into glossy pop ala the latter career of Sheryl Crow, just when critics were hailing her as the natural heir to Dusty Springfield. Who asked for your opinion eh?
All this I knew but still I am surprised when I stumble into a smackdown. After some introductory politeness I tell her that while having her new album, Identity Crisis, is a treat I had to confess to being disappointed by Love, Shelby. The chill that descends is palpable.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lynne says bluntly. “People can sometimes forget I made that record. I actually made that album. I don’t make albums I dislike. I make albums that at the time of my life that’s the type of music that’s coming into my heart.
“The only time I ever have a problem with this at all is when I talk to guys like you. Our business is based on several people’s opinions of your body and soul in a piece of work. And that’s unfair. You can be made or broken by one person’s simple opinion, and that’s not fair. I’m just being honest because I don’t know any other way to be. I do a lot of press and I don’t mind doing it but when I make an album it’s part of my guts and soul and when people tell me ‘well I thought it was shit’ it really hurts.”
Of course she’s got a point. If the criticism didn’t hurt it wasn’t real for the artist in the first place. But there’s a marked difference in approach and sound between the studio-sheen of Love, Shelby (which was written with and produced by the controlling star maker behind Alanis Morissette’s success, Glen Ballard), and the home-recorded, all-Lynne written, just about all-Lynne played Identity Crisis.
It’s almost like a sharp reaction, maybe even a recognition that it hadn’t worked out last time when it felt that Lynne had traded in the country machine for the pop machine and lost herself in the process.
As she says on the new song Gotta Be Better: “been chasing my tail for years/flying by running from terror and fear”.
There’s no doubt we’re getting her guts and soul here in this emotionally raw album that appears to chronicle her emergence from some dark areas personally and professionally.
“I wanted to make something really personal,” Lynne says. “I had nobody to feed off of but me. I had nobody to argue with, nobody to fight with but me. And I enjoyed it. I did everything on this album I’ve been told all my career not to do.”
And there’s the rub you see of all that “I yam what I yam” defiance now. The 35-year-old Lynne has had to accept the input and sometimes direction of others in her career and it may not have always been the best advice.
In an interview with fellow singer Joan Osbourne a few years ago Lynne told her “I made a lot of records I can't even listen to.” With that in mind, the new album’s title, Identity Crisis, isn’t lightly thrown.
That she’s made the best album of her career by being a completely free agent – she recorded the album while out of contract - can’t have escaped her. And if that means a bit of remaking of history then it’s a small price.
“There was a freedom there I didn’t even know of until I realised oh shit this is probably my favourite record I’ve ever made and I don’t have a deal. What the fuck?” she says. “But in my guts, in my instinct I know that this record, goofy, oddball as it is there’s no way I could have made this record if I’d had a deal.
“They would never have allowed it. It’s insane to put this record out. But [the new label] Capitol said fuck we’ll put it out, we dig it.”
And well they should for the album’s musical mix of southern soul that wouldn’t disgrace Bobbie Gentry or Dusty, Willie Nelson-influenced acoustic numbers and even a homage to Patsy Cline, provide great and uncluttered surrounds for some direct and exposing lyrics.
“I am completely exposed and I don’t see any problem with that,” says Lynne. “That’s my way of communicating. The only thing I know to write about is me and my experiences and I don’t have any problem whatsoever with baring my soul in music.
“I don’t know any other way to do it. I can’t beat around the bush too well.”
Oh, I’ve noticed.