The tale of actress Kim Novak is one of Hollywood’s greatest walk-away stories. As a rising “blonde bombshell” starlet, she epitomized intelligent women who possessed an underlying sadness but could also enjoy comedy. Roles in hit films like Picnic (1955, which earned her a Golden Globe award win for “Most Promising Newcomer,”) The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and the biopic of heroin-addicted silent screen star Jeanne Eagles (1957) paved the way for her mesmerizing performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), considered by many critics to be the director’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest feature films ever made.
However, after a devastating 1966 mudslide in which she lost her home and virtually her entire net worth and personal belongings overnight, she decided to walk away from Hollywood to pursue her first love, impressionist painting, and would only sporadically act in films again, on her own terms and only on projects that appealed to her personal interests.
If there was ever an American music equivalent to Kim Novak, Shelby Lynne would certainly qualify for the short list. With a soaring contralto, a knockout music-video-ready face, a defiantly stubborn streak, and a Southern songwriting gift for storytelling and conveying emotion that could be compared with William Faulkner as easily as Hank Williams, Shelby Lynne has followed the integrity of her music’s demands and has often paid the price for her refusal to compromise.
Born Shelby Lynn Moorer in Virginia, she was raised with sister Allison Moorer, an acclaimed country artist in her own right (and frequent duet collaborator) in tiny Frankville, Alabama. Theirs was a musical home where the girls would sometimes join their parents onstage. Their abusive alcoholic father’s actions prompted their mother to flee to Mobile while they were still in their teens. Their father tracked them down and murdered their mother with a shotgun before committing suicide in front of them.
This emotional tragedy would find its way into Shelby Lynne’s music throughout the rest of her career, starting in 1988 at age 19, when she was signed to Epic to record a duet with George Jones: “If I Could Bottle This Up,” which reached Number 43 on the Billboard country music singles chart.
Writing songs from a Deep South lyric perspective and a musical sensibility drawn from Delta blues, old time bluegrass, rockabilly, and swing jazz, she had already begun to chafe at the country-pop mold Nashville imagemakers tried to shoehorn her into, and although she won the 1990 American Country Music award for Best New Female Vocalist, she was looking towards more fulfilling, albeit less commercial musical horizons.
After several formulaic pop-country releases, she left Epic to record Restless (1993), a country/swing jazz album, for Morgan Creek records. “I Need a Heart to Come Home To” is a great example of Shelby Lynne’s ability to channel the “torch and twang” of singers like Patsy Cline while putting her own spin on it.
Still trying to avoid getting lumped together with Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and other pop-country sirens, she relocated to California and finally teamed up with Bill Bottrell, known for his work with Sheryl Crow, another singer-songwriter with rock and Americana roots. Lynne and Bottrell recorded I Am Shelby Lynne in 1998. Island/Def Jam released the breakout confessional album, which earned her a Grammy award for Best New Artist in 2000. Her acceptance speech left jaws agape when she commented with some bitterness that it only took her “thirteen years and six albums to get here.”
Hailed by critics and giving Lynne her first taste of success, I Am Shelby Lynne drew musical comparisons to Dusty Springfield, Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow, and her sultry looks put her on the radar for music video VJ rotations. “Your Lies” is a good example of the power of her vocal delivery in a more commercial setting.
Island tried to strike a second time while the iron was still hot, and teamed Shelby Lynne up with producer Glen Ballard, then riding the success of his work with Alanis Morissette on the mega-selling Jagged Little Pill album. Although Lynne was starting to write even more high-quality songs, the music industry image mavens at Island once again tried to tame their high-strung hellion into a marketable product.
The best-selling Helen Fielding novel Bridget Jones’s Diary was being made into a movie starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, and two of Shelby Lynne’s songs were chosen for inclusion: “Dreamsome” from I Am Shelby Lynne, and “Killin’ Kind,” a new song she had written for her forthcoming album, Love, Shelby (2001).
Despite being one of her best compositions and a song that has become a concert staple, the music video for “Killin’ Kind” displayed Shelby Lynne in the most sexualized and glittery package a marketing PR team could ever devise. From her luxurious golden tresses, bare-midriff tank tops, short shorts, and sheer dresses barely covering her breasts, to shots of her with only a towel to preserve her modesty, “Killin’ Kind” played up Shelby Lynne as sex kitten. The cover of Love, Shelby echoed this strategy, and Ballard’s pop-oriented attempts to smooth out the rough edges of her music on songs like “Jesus On a Greyhound” unfortunately took a chunk of her music’s character with it.
In comparison to the Ballard arrangement, Lynne’s subsequent concert versions of “Killin’ Kind” demonstrate the kind of emotional depth and delivery range for which she has earned her fans’ devotion and loyalty, and which has made the song a fan favorite:
Although she had attained commercial success, the sexy coquette and pop music trappings grated on Shelby Lynne, and she retreated to her home studio to focus on doing the music her own way, stepping back from the pop success of Love, Shelby.
The aptly titled Identity Crisis (2003) saw Lynne self-producing and exploring the other influences in her music with a decidedly more down home, lo-fi approach, and the bravado to mix and match genres as her muse dictated. From the folky-jazz doo-wop meets gospel of “Telephone,” the Delta blues of “Evil Man,” and the honky-tonk of “10 Rocks,” to the swing jazz of “Lonesome,” her material laid many of her emotional conflicts bare lyrically even as her musical chops started maturing.
Identity Crisis also served to showcase Shelby Lynne’s burgeoning and underrated guitar skills. Playing all of the acoustic and electric guitar parts, including solos, her electric guitar playing is reminiscent of David Bowie’s on “Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel, Rebel” in both its rawness and effectiveness for the material at hand. Acoustically, her solo on the introspective Cassandra Wilson-ish “I Will Stay” has an atmospheric, Bill Frisell quality that sounds concurrently both structured and improvised. Meanwhile, her bluesy acoustic and electric excursions on “Button And Beaus” and “One With the Sun” are solid and surprisingly playful-sounding.
“Gotta Be Better,” a rockabilly-meets-Patti Smith punk-meets-proto metal mash-up is an example of one of Lynne’s more interesting experiments. The punk and over the top Link Wray-esque guitar elements are more pronounced on the album, but this live version still captures the energy of her approach:
Suit Yourself (2005) built upon the foundation of Identity Crisis, as evidenced by Lynne’s increased confidence in her production skills. She added elements of Dylan, Cat Stevens and R&B to her musical jambalaya with the wordplay of “Where I Am Now” and “You And Wem” and the Philly soul-influenced “You Don’t Have a Heart.”
Suit Yourself also marked the beginning of a long-term musical friendship with songwriter Tony Joe White, best known for “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” the latter of which Lynne covers, untitled, as “Track 12.”
Although she had traded in the Daisy Duke short shorts and tank tops for T-shirts and jeans and was assiduously avoiding the sex-kitten image in the pursuit of artistic credibility for her music, Shelby Lynne nevertheless was still on the radar of producers who wanted her in front of the camera for the intangible qualities that she embodied: pride, melancholy, tragedy, and Southern stoicism in the wake of adversity. She was ironically cast as Johnny Cash’s mother, Carrie, in the biopic Walk the Line, wearing glasses and a character-appropriate dowdy look (she is, in reality, only five years older than Joaquin Phoenix, who appeared as Cash).
The day Johnny Cash passed away, she wrote “Johnny Met June,” which, as the single from Suit Yourself, opened at Number 20 on the Billboard country music charts.
Shelby Lynne was a fan of UK pop-soul singer Dusty Springfield, especially welcomed the frequent comparisons made by critics and fans between them, considering it “the ultimate compliment,” even though she was quoted in 2010 as saying: “There’s absolutely nothing about us that’s alike.”
She nevertheless decided to showcase her interpretive skills with her next release, a Dusty Springfield tribute album titled Just a Little Lovin’ (2007). The story of how this record of cover songs (and one original, “Pretend”) came about (per Wikipedia) involves a confrontational meeting she had with a Capitol Records rep over the lack of Suit Yourself’s commercial success:
“Over drinks in a dark bar in Hollywood I put my cards on the table. The record company man told me that they didn’t know what to do with the last record I made. We sat there and tossed around bullsh*t for an hour or so. Round two began and we had some more drinks. We were just getting fuzzy and not a lot was accomplished. Towards the end of a frustrating evening, I remember saying, ‘Hell, I’m just going to call Barry Manilow and cut the Dusty Springfield songs! Maybe somebody will like that! Everybody loves Dusty!’ Record company man almost dropped his drink, got all saucer-eyed and said: ‘Well, I can see getting behind that.’ I laughed out loud. Record men respond when you talk about Dusty Springfield.”
With a cover-photo homage to the landmark LP, Dusty in Memphis, Shelby Lynne selected Phil Ramone to produce the record and Al Schmitt (who eventually received a Grammy nomination for Just a Little Lovin’) to engineer. (See my articles about Ramone and Schmitt in Issue 162 and Issue 160.) Going old-school, Lynne wanted the record recorded on analog tape and opted for relatively sparse instrumentation to showcase her voice and the slow-burn nature of her approach to the material, which she has described as “down.”
The majority of critical responses were highly positive, with many acknowledging Shelby Lynne as “one of the few singers who could make a Dusty Springfield song her own.” The most negative comments came from those expecting less restraint and more bombast, with one reviewer shallowly conceding, “it’s killer make-out music.”
The sterling production and superb Al Schmitt engineering has since made Just a Little Lovin’ an audiophile library “must-have.” PS Audio founder Paul McGowan has cited it in one of Paul’s Posts: https://www.psaudio.com/pauls-posts/just-a-little-lovin/
Phil Ramone, who cut the original Dusty Springfield version of the Bacharach-David song “The Look of Love” for the Casino Royale movie soundtrack, was well-suited for the approach Shelby Lynne wanted to take, as the record was recorded live at Capitol Studios with no overdubs.
Just a Little Lovin’ became Shelby Lynne’s most successful record, reaching Number 41 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Ironically, Lost Highway Records ended up releasing the album, as Capitol’s record division underwent upheaval during the recording sessions.
Part Two will continue in Issue 164 with the release of Tears, Lies and Alibis, the first record from Shelby Lynne’s independent label, Everso Records.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Justin Higuchi.