On the face of it, singer Shelby Lynne had everything going for her when she cracked into the world of late-'80s Nashville... She debuted singing a duet with George Jones and started out on a major label at a time when Music City was aggressively trying to freshen itself up with new, younger talent. But she didn't quite click on the charts, at least not as much as folks had hoped, and at some point, Shelby abruptly changed course, giving up on "straight" country in order to delve into more of a jazz-tinged, roots-rock sound reminscent of Dusty Springfield's Memphis days. Lynne bounced from label to label for a while, but like her sister, Alison Moorer, she eventually found life to be more comfortable as a straight-up indie artist, courting the Americana crowd while keeping a few feelers out to Nashville. Here's a quick look at her work...
Shelby Lynne "Sunrise" (Sony Epic, 1989)
Shelby Lynne "Tough All Over" (Sony Epic, 1990)
Shelby Lynne "Soft Talk" (Sony Epic, 1991)
Shelby Lynne "Temptation" (Mercury/Morgan Creek, 1993)
Opening with a Lyle Lovett/kd lang-inspired blues/swing tune, and peppering the album with several swooping, jazzy torch songs, Lynne is obviously chafing at the bit as far as her relationship to the Nashville studio system goes... You can completely see why she began to engender a devoted cult following... And why the various label's couldn't wait to edge her out after her albums tanked. In retrospect, though, her permutations all make sense, and this is actually a fairly nice little album, if you go for Diana Krall-ish jazz vocals.
Shelby Lynne "Restless" (Curb/Magnatone, 1995)
Although the album art shows Lynne looking all glammed-up, the music inside is some of her most bare-bones, back-to-basics, honkytonk-oriented country stuff to date. It's pretty darn nice, if the truth be told. Producer Brent Maher (who crafted many of the Judds' biggest hits) slathers on liberal doses of fiddle and pedal steel, and the backbeat is pure Texas shuffle, with Shelby's multitracked vocals sounding mighty fine. She wrote about half of the songs on here, many in collaboration with up-and-coming Jamie O'Hara. A couple of songs drift into torchy pop terrain, but not so much so that it derails the album. Nice record -- hard country fans, take heed!
Shelby Lynne "I Am" (Island, 2000)
Well, it shore ain't no country record, but if you're looking for more Sheryl Crow-style blues-drenched, pointedly lavish orchestral rock/soul, then this album might be for you. Lynne is another one the growing ranks of Music City runaways who've ditched the Nashville studio system so that they could make "their own" kind of music. In this case, it's LA-soul pop she's after, and she even rounded up Sheryl Crowe's old producer to help her out; one suspects that the whole "breaking out of Nashville" thing is just a li-i-i-i-ttle bit contrived, but hey, whatever sells records...right? My girlfriend -- who liked Sheryl Crow's first album a lot -- snapped at me the day she came home and this was in the CD player: "Could you put something more listenable on?" she growled. But I'll stand by this album, in a reserved kinda way. Lynne has a distinctive voice, and forceful delivery, while the studio sounds that package it are equally brazen and engaging. It's big-money roots pop, with more than a slight nod towards old Dusty Springfield, and a few softer acoustic-oriented tracks that are a treat to hear on such an obviously big-money album. All in all, I'd rather hear an album by this Nashville renegade than anything either Trisha Yearwood or Mariah Carey care to throw at me. A bit hammy, but it does have soul.
Shelby Lynne "Love, Shelby" (Island, 2001)
When she broke out of the lower rungs of Nashville studio hell with a soul-drenched album that harkened back to Dusty Springfield's Memphis days... now THAT was cool. But here, Lynne seems to be living up to all those catty comments about how she just sounds like Sheryl Crowe's kid sister. 1999's I Am Shelby Lynne was a brilliant, sultry, humid blend of Southern soul and back-porch country twang -- a truly inspired album. By contrast, this new disc has the feel of another record where the studio boys are back in control, producing densely crafted, picture-perfect pop. She croons, it's true, and there's some interesting bluesiness amid the rock guitars, but this is a rather derivative album. The nadir comes on "Jesus On The Greyhound," an outright embarassing swipe of Joan Osborne's "One Of Us" (...didn't that song start out on a bus, too...?) that somebody should have had the presence of mind to leave off the record. This will probably make some of her new fans happy, but will disappoint those of us looking for another innovative masterpiece.
Shelby Lynne "Identity Crisis" (Capitol, 2003)
Cool! This is perhaps the record Shelby Lynne should have released after her renowned I Am... Shelby Lynne hit album, instead of the dreadful, rock-oriented Love, Shelby, which was a clear step backwards. Whereas that disc opted for a propulsive pop sound, this album is acoustic, introspective, eclectic and mature... There's an obvious early Bonnie Raitt/Rickie Lee Jones blues-jazz jones throughout, and while Lynne's a little self-conscious and formalistic here, for the most part, she pulls it off. The opening track, "Telephone," probably has the most compelling hook of the entire album, but the rest of the record should keep your attention and get you to wonder, as did I, is Shelby Lynne finally really arriving as a full-fledged artiste? Only time and the next couple of records will tell!
Shelby Lynne "Suit Yourself" (Capitol, 2005)
Shelby Lynne "Just A Little Lovin' " (Lost Highway, 2008)
Shelby Lynne "Merry Christmas" (Everso, 2010)
Shelby Lynne "Lies, Tears And Alibis" (Everso, 2010)
Shelby Lynne "Revelation Road" (Everso Records, 2011)
A couple of years ago Shelby Lynne started her own independent label, and has released a couple of albums that would never have gotten out the gate in the fiscally conservative Nashville hit factory. Take for example this stripped-down, intensely personal indie-acoustic set which painfully explores the themes of Lynne's tragic family history, in which her mother and father were lost in a grisly murder-suicide when she and sister Allison Moorer were in their teens (their father shot their mother, then himself...) The album is packed with mournful, brokenhearted emotional sketches, punctuated at album's end by a twin pair of suicide songs, "Toss It All Aside," and its sequel, "Heaven's Only Days Down The Road," where the desolate narrator fantasizes about taking a gun out of the closet, and what his/her funeral will be like after he/she is gone. These despair-drenched gems are followed by the album's closer, the seemingly sweet "I Won't Leave You," a melodic acoustic tune which pledges fidelity but hints at impending sorrow and loss, like a last-minute declaration of passion towards a lover who's got one foot out the door, their bags packed, and a full tank of gas in a double-parked car. Concept albums about the redemption of dads who destroy their own families are a tough sell, but Lynne brings a level of emotional rawness and artistic depth to the table that is hard to deny. Her unique blend of soul, folk and twang creates a seductive bed for these remarkably bleak, downcast lyrics... She also produced the album and plays all of the instruments, adding to the personal feel of this powerful downer of an album. On a personal note: godspeed, Shelby. I hope everything's okay.
Shelby Lynne "Thanks" (EP) (Everso, 2014)
On this stripped-down, understated 5-song EP, Lynne delves into rootsier acoustic tones, more deliberately "country," but also some uptempo gospel ("Walkin' ") and caps things off with a windswept country-rock ballad, "Thanks," that reminds me of Linda Ronstadt in her 1970's glory days. All in all, a nice, compact set -- love to hear an entire album like this, pitched at the same level of simplicity and elegance.
Shelby Lynne "Epic Recordings" (Epic, 2000)
It's a bit odd that this collection of songs from her initial stint on the Epic label, from 1988-95, leans so heavily on her fondness for standards and slower, pop vocals-ish material. What about those early duets with George Jones? The Buck Owens covers? The country stuff? Can't say as I'd actually recommend this album to anyone; you'd be better off tracking down the original albums, and seeing what you think about them...
Shelby Lynne "The Definitive Collection" (Universal/Hip-O, 2006)
Hick Music Index