Deep Dive

    Shelby Lynne – An American Original, Part Two

    Issue 164

    Part One (Issue 163) covered singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne’s career from her first release with George Jones in 1988 to her 2007 landmark, Just a Little Lovin’.

    Tears, Lies and Alibis (2010) was the first release on Shelby Lynne’s independent label, Everso Records. The bottled-up rancor and cynicism of her new songs and the short-cropped-hair, black leather and heavy mascara cover photo defiantly proclaimed a Shelby Lynne of no more compromise. The outspokenness of some of her past interviews, which had given image consultants and PR managers sleepless nights over unbleeped f-bombs and barbs aimed at industry executives, had morphed into a full dose of ornery invective when she was provoked. She was in her early 40s.

    Heavy on acoustic guitar and dobro, with stripped-down arrangements easily replicated in concert, the song topics of Tears, Lies and Alibis explored themes of betrayal, longing, searching, and introspection, with song titles like, “Like a Fool,” “Alibi,” and “Loser Dreamer.” Musically, the songs showed a greater leaning towards Americana, bluegrass, and gospel R&B, with Ben Peeler and John Jackson supplying mandolin, banjo, Weissenborn slide, and dobro guitar, while Muscle Shoals keyboard legend Spooner Oldham played electric piano.

    One of the hardest-rocking tracks on Tears Lies and Alibis is “Old Dog,” which consists almost entirely of two acoustic guitars and overdubbed voices.

     

    Shelby Lynne’s next Everso release was Merry Christmas (2010), which contained a mix of holiday favorites as well as a pair of Lynne originals: “Xmas” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas.” Al Schmitt once again handled the mixing of the album.

    By now well-regarded by her music industry peers in spite of her rejection by record labels, Shelby Lynne later reprised the bluesy “Xmas” with fan Daryl Hall for a soulful duet on his TV show Live From Daryl’s House in 2013.

     

    All of the elements of Shelby Lynne’s musical artistry crystalized with the masterful Revelation Road (2011; expanded edition released 2012). She played all of the instruments, and combined the slow-burn country-soul from her recent records with a finer lyrical command of subtlety and transcendence that revealed more of her personal tragedies and her trials in career and relationships. Revelation Road contains many of Shelby Lynne’s finest compositions. “Woebegone,” “I’ll Hold Your Head,” “Even Angels,” “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” “I Don’t Need a Reason to Cry,” and the title track all highlight the emotional range of her singing, while the arrangements and instrumental performances are all top-notch and on par with her earlier releases that are replete with Nashville and L.A. session musicians. Amazingly, some of the instruments (such as mandolin and drums), she had never even touched before, yet she demonstrates an almost Brian Jones-like ability to get the sounds that she hears in her head from each instrument onto the record.

    Here is Shelby Lynne performing “I’ll Hold Your Head” backed by a band featuring Don Was and Buddy Miller:

     

    “Heaven’s Only Days Down The Road” had lines like, “never was the cryin’ but the fightin’ kind,” and referenced her parents’ murder-suicide with the lines:

    Hundred so miles from the Mobile River,
    Lord, I can’t have her so I’ve got to kill her,
    Heaven’s only days down the road…
    …can’t blame the whiskey or my mammy’s ways,
    Two little girls are better off this way…

     

    Live at McCabe’s (2012) featured a solo Shelby Lynne accompanied just with her acoustic guitar, and showcased numerous songs from Revelation Road – demonstrating the power of her then-new material standing on its own without a need for a band. The album also includes some past favorites, like “Jesus On a Greyhound” from Love Shelby, “Your Lies,” and “Johnny Met June.”

    In an interview with country music online publication The Boot, she explained her troubadour M.O.: “It’s hard,” she noted. “But it’s kind of the challenge that makes it all worth getting out of bed. I’ve got a new way of sharing that same old thing. I always take a big breath when I go out there and say, ‘I’ve got a new song,’ but the cool thing is without having any hit records, nobody expects to hear a particular thing. I mean, I’ve got my diehards who know the words to things that I don’t know! [laughs]”

     

    I Can’t Imagine (2016) continued to mine the veins of Shelby Lynne’s emotional reserves. She told Rolling Stone about the song “Following You,” which simultaneously harkens back to her childhood memories of her father along with a chilling adult perspective of his alcoholism and personal troubles:

    “I would always walk behind him,” she says of those treks through the woods, a shotgun hoisted on her shoulder. “[The song is] like me following him and reading his thoughts and doing everything that I know he wants me to. I’m following him even though he doesn’t know where he’s going. I’m gonna let him know that I’m gonna be his little girl. I’m gonna do everything I’m supposed to do. But I really know that he’s a dumbass [laughs]. When you’re the kid that I was and you know that Daddy has his demons…once you get to be 11 or 12 and .22 rifle-totin’ size, you realize that you’re dealing with a human being that has a lot of facets. So, you start figuring out this person you admire. That’s me thinking about him…when I think about him.”

    I Can’t Imagine also features songwriting and performance collaborations with Ben Peeler (who had been a stalwart Shelby Lynne Band member since Tears, Lies and Alibis), Citizen Cope, Pete Donnelly of The Figgs, and Ron Sexsmith.

    The painfully honest and uncensored Shelby Lynne that had begun to emerge in earlier interviews had by now become an unfiltered stream of consciousness when speaking with journalists. One interview mentioned her disdain for Nashville polish versus her raw emotion-laden performances, and an abhorrence of doing multiple takes of a song, a trait shared by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and other artists:

    “I have dreadful memories from my early Nashville days of record producers telling me to sing a song over and over and over. So, before the f*cking record came out, I hated the song. I don’t sing the songs any more than one or two times. If I ain’t got it then, then f*ck it, I ain’t puttin’ it on there. I will not be told what to do. I will not be told what to sing, unless [it’s someone] I really, really, really trust. In Nashville, they didn’t really give a f*ck whether I trusted them or not. It was like, ‘Here, sing this.’ Those times are way gone.”

    I Can’t Imagine was distributed under a one-off deal with folk label Rounder Records (reaching Number 5 on Billboard’s folk music chart), and for the most part, stays in that vein with the Americana and soul stylings that defined Revelation Road. However, there is one stark exception: “Down Here,” a scathing indictment of discriminatory attitudes in the South towards people who are “different” and subject to being bullied, finds Shelby Lynne channeling Neil Young with a Crazy Horse-inspired groove and extended, distortion laden guitar solos.

     

    Although she was able to attend and graduate college, Allison Moorer quickly moved to Nashville to sing backup in sister Shelby’s band, and develop her own songwriting skills. Her elegant vocals caught the attention of producer Tony Brown, which launched her solo career with a number of moderately successful albums. She married controversial singer-songwriter Steve Earle and they had a son, John Henry, before divorcing in 2015. Her musical collaborations extended to include documentary film soundtracks, and working with noted instrumental virtuosos like Buddy Miller and Jerry Douglas.

    Although they had been singing together since childhood, it took nearly 30 years for Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer to record a duet album together. Produced by Teddy Thompson, son of Celtic folk-rock legend Richard Thompson and a singer/songwriter of note in his own right, Not Dark Yet received a slew of critical accolades, with Rolling Stone citing the Dylan-penned title track as “the crown jewel, showing the river-deep musicality of a latter-day Dylan croaker when it’s parsed by immaculate, blood-kin harmony.”

     

    Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Raph_PH.

    Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Raph_PH.

     

    The eclectic list of covers included a diversity of writers and genres, rearranged by Lynne, Moorer and Thompson into a listening experience that combined their gorgeous vocals supported by the Americana-soul instrumentation of I Can’t Imagine with a dose of Daniel Lanois-inspired ambiance. Standout tracks included renditions of Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” Nirvana’s “Lithium,” The Killers’ “My List,” and the haunting title track. Allison Moorer’s piano playing, as well as that of the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench and organist Erik Deutsch, also give a different sonic flavor to the otherwise guitar-focused sound on most of Shelby Lynne’s self-produced albums.

     

    Allison Moorer’s lilting soprano blends effortlessly with Shelby Lynne’s contralto, and their harmonies are simply irresistible. Not Dark Yet reached Number 8 on US folk/Americana charts, Number 39 on the country charts and Number 3 and 2 respectively in the UK. The sisters are currently on tour again ((The SISSY Tour) at the time of this writing, selling out the City Winery in New York and other venues across the country in anticipation of their next duet album.

    2020’s Shelby Lynne saw a return to the one-woman-production M.O. that was so successful on Revelation Road. Befriending filmmaker Cynthia Mort, who co-wrote several of the songs on Shelby Lynne, was an outgrowth of their collaboration on the award-winning independent film, We Kill The Creators (previously titled Here I Am) in which the aptly cast Lynne had her first starring role as “Tommy, a singer challenged by the difficulties of realizing her artistic vision as well as the perils of success of that vision.” Containing several allegorical and fantasy sequences, the film also featured old Lynne compadre Tony Joe White as an angel with whom Lynne’s Tommy sings a duet on the their co-authored “Can’t Go Home Again,” which they recorded together in 2004 for White’s LP, The Heroines. White passed away at the age of 75 soon after filming.

    With a leaning more towards her Dusty Springfield soul influences, Shelby Lynne also made her alto sax recording debut on “My Mind’s Riot.” Inspired by Mort’s lyrics, Lynne told Rolling Stone that she hadn’t played the sax since ninth grade, but she went to the attic and retrieved it with the realization that “it had to be kept simple.” She drew upon influences such as the solo from the original “The Look of Love” by Dusty Springfield, and John Coltrane’s “Naima” – trying to make her playing as “low and silky as she could.”

     

    Lynne gives a nod to her Southern Gospel roots on the piano-driven “Here I Am,” and offers a touch of jazzy ambience with some Santana-ish lead guitar on “The Equation,” reminiscent of Cassandra Wilson, another Southern singer who has created her own amalgam of jazz, blues, gospel and pop.

     

    The Philly soul grooves and stacked harmony vocals on “Don’t Ever Believe in Love,” “Lovefear,” and “Off My Mind” recall classic Hall and Oates, complete with Curtis Mayfield-style rhythm guitar fills and a tremolo guitar solo fade out.

     

    With her turtleneck sweater pulled over her face on the cover photo in a prophetically mask-like fashion that eerily presaged the pandemic, Shelby Lynne revisits, in some ways, the genre experimentation of Identity Crisis, but with greater confidence and refined instrumental skills to balance out her phenomenal vocal talents.

    2020 also saw the streaming-only release of The Healing for A-Tone Recording. With no credits or promotional information available, The Healing nevertheless continues the Southern soul stylings for which Shelby Lynne is unparalleled, and leaves the Americana acoustic elements aside. Starting with the title track, the album continues the ’70s retro Philly soul sound, drenched with wah-wah’d and envelope-filtered rhythm guitars, phase-shifted lead guitars, pulsing vibrato electric pianos, and background “oohs” and “aahs” from a Memphis Muscle Shoals-styled rhythm section. Lynne’s pristine vocals are in top form.

    The Healing:

    https://www.extrememusic.com/albums/3621?item=59104&ver=264836&sharedTrack=dHJ1ZQ==

    “Sugarcane” has a swampy Southern blues groove with hints of Little Feat and slide guitar. “I Forgot My Heart” is a passion-filled R&B duet that could have been performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. The menacing bass of “We Can Be” gives way to sustained Fender Rhodes piano chords and a soul fusion of harmonized vocals against flute and a clavinet that could have come out of Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions.”

    “Wasting Away in LA” debuts Shelby Lynne as a credible rapper (!) against a drum loop with ’70s-appropriate instrumentation: jazzy flute, electric piano, a Chuck Rainey-styled bass, brittle rhythm guitar, and a catchy chorus.

    Throughout the course of her career, Shelby Lynne has hinted of her personal faith, in some of her songs and in interviews, such as confessing that she felt her main reason for participating in the film We Kill The Creators was that God wanted her to work one last time with Tony Joe White before he died. On her website, she explains further:

    “IT’S JUST KIND OF CRAZY HOW THINGS HAPPEN WHEN THE INTENTIONS ARE GOOD. I THINK IT REALLY MATTERS IN YOUR SOUL AND TO THE WORLD’S SOUL WHEN YOU RECOGNIZE THOSE THINGS IN THE MOMENT. IF WE RECOGNIZE THOSE SITUATIONS IN THE MOMENT THAT MARRY AND CREATE THAT FEELING OF BLISS INSIDE OF US, I THINK THAT’S THE ONLY WAY WE CAN COMMUNICATE WITH GOD.”

    As of this writing, Shelby Lynne’s latest release is an all-gospel record, perhaps the result of an epiphany, or, as she cites above, a way to “communicate with God.” Drawing upon the music of her childhood in Southern churches, she has stated in interviews that The Servant is “one of my proudest achievements” and “making it saved my soul.”

    Turning the glitzy sex-kitten image of the “Killin’ Kind” music video on its head, the cover photo of The Servant is a grainy, stark, black & white photo of a topless Shelby Lynne, older and wiser, without makeup and with scars and wounds (including a bandaged finger) all displayed in honest reality, a far cry from the fantasy Playboy pinup image of 20 years ago. The only visible color is the gold cross around her neck.

    Musically, The Servant consists entirely of Southern gospel hymns, along with the folk standard “Wayfaring Stranger.” Classics such as “Amazing Grace,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were recorded with drummer James Gadson and guitarist George Doering, along with her own guitar playing. Vocal arrangements are reminiscent of The Jordanaires, and favorable comparisons were made by a number of critics between The Servant and Elvis Presley’s gospel recordings.

    There is a breadth of emotional and musical range from dark to light, an element that is also always included in the records of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, who have mined this same canon. (See Anne E. Johnson’s article in Issue 160.)

    The standout “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” channels Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers, complete with the signature Pops Staples’ tremolo guitar and bass accompaniment. The eerie riff and Lynne’s moans recall Blind Willie Johnson and other gospel blues icons from the Depression era.

     

    On the upbeat bright side is “Didn’t It Rain,” a song which borrows heavily from Elvis Presley’s gospel recordings, from the slap-back echo, to the call and response vocals, to the sparse instrumentation and quick fadeout at the end.

     

    Truly an American original, Shelby Lynne’s path has, in some ways, paralleled that of Aimee Mann, another brilliant singer-songwriter who has faced her own personal traumas and written about them. However, whereas Mann’s concerns over emotional and mental demons might bring comparisons to Sylvia Plath, Shelby Lynne is clearly a Dixie-bred storytelling descendant (albeit through song) of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.

     

    Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Justin Higuchi.

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