Here’s what intrigues me about Shelby Lynne, the country singer whose new album has been enjoying the sort of blanket media salivation only Dave Eggers can truly appreciate. The Lynne of all the feature stories is basically Jerry Lee Lewis. She grew up in rural Alabama, her dad shot her mom and then killed himself in front of her and her sister; she’s a shitkicker who drinks way too much, gets dropped from record labels for rude remarks, and shoots a lousy game of pool. The Lynne I hear on the CD is at least as much Soul II Soul: retro sentiments floated into slightly dated loops by Bill Bottrell, who oversaw the first Sheryl Crow album.
Don’t misunderstand. I Am Shelby Lynne is a standout, starting with the singer: Reared on easy-listening country, she spent years smiling in the studio then getting wasted on James Brown, before realizing at 30 that her foul mood the next morning was the best thing she had going for her. Track by track, which is how they convince, the arrangements are equally grown-up, if brighter. “Your Lies” chases the monaural intensity John Lennon achieved on “Gimme Some Truth,” but it’s been dunked into a cup of Memphis Strings. “Leavin’ ” and “Gotta Get Back” earn all those Dusty Springfield comparisons, then “Life Is Bad” stomps like Little Feat. The McGarrigles would have been proud to write the French couplet in the autobiographical “Where I’m From.” Lynne is open to r&b, particularly the smooth grit of Hi Records soul, on “Thought It Would Be Easier” and “Dreamsome.” The torchlight in “Black Light Blue” shines like Nina Simone.
Still, if the range of reference marks Lynne’s hard-won liberation from cookie-cutter Nashville, there’s a different sort of plasticity to this sound, which may explain why it broke not in the heartland or on VH1, but the U.K., where the album came out many months ago. In England recently, I noticed I Am Shelby Lynne sounding perfect at moderate volume at a Leeds HMV and making sense on a Virgin Airlines channel next to Everything but the Girl. Not to discount Lynne’s guitar, but with much of the music overdubbed by Bottrell, the vibe of the virtual studio overwhelms the feeling of any particular instrument. More so than in standard country, actually, where one hears real musicians even if they’re just session workers who always play exactly the same way.
Bottrell’s production is as warm as it can be under the circumstances, the textures chosen by a monster music fan with great taste. Yet the sense of abstraction remains, and maybe isn’t meant to be overcome, whereas overcoming abstraction is precisely the drama that undergirds D’Angelo’s new album—which is why he’ll strip naked to get there. Maybe the liberal fantasy being promoted is that the distinction doesn’t matter, that soul is soul no matter how you package it, and that releasing country attitudes into the world of sophisticated rock is adventure enough, the equivalent of fixing a melody to some drum’n’bass. Any doubts raised by the sound are assuaged by the biography.
It’s only the latest role Lynne has stepped into. As a teenager, she made her first album under the supervision of Nashville legend Billy Sherrill. “It’s a record by a little-bitty, green, eager singer who’s desperate to please,” she told Uncut‘s Nigel Williamson. Her second album she dismisses as crap commercial country. Her third at least tanked on her own clueless terms. “It’s soft pop. That was my rebellion.” Her fifth had “way too much country schlock” again. Her fourth, and the old one she’s fondest of, 1993’s Temptation, sought to re-create big-band Western swing.
More than she’ll acknowledge, Lynne has chosen to hide behind these mirrors, concealing a healthy portion of what drives her. This new album comes closer; for the first time, she wrote or cowrote all the songs, and she confronts her bitterness on the centerpiece, “Why Can’t You Be?” Or anyway, the centerpiece she let go of: Profiling her in Spin, Mark Schone discovered that she’d excised her writerly breakthrough, “The Sky Is Purple,” about her family tragedy. However emotional, the remaining songs are couched in euphemism, just as the tracks are expert pastiches. That all these facets don’t fit adds an irresolution that honors the old-school pop the young Lynne lived for. It also serves the postrock, postconfessional intimacy that makes her so contemporary.
I’ve always preferred Sheryl Crow’s second album, where she winged it on her own, and am crossing my fingers that Lynne finds the same hubris. In Austin, at South by Southwest, her guitars-and-keyboard band ripped like Dylan and the Hawks, a great sign. Lynne, though friendly in a borderline sarcastic way, already seemed distanced from her current material, like she needed new stuff to match where her sound was heading. Time for another transformation. In 1991, Patrick Carr saw her live, supporting a far worse album but driving an assemblage she called the Turbans of Soul. He thought he glimpsed a female Delbert McClinton: “raucous, red-blooded country-rhythm-and-blues.” That performer mightn’t have won the buzz Lynne has garnered for her digital question mark. But she’s still there. She’s made her finest record yet. And we haven’t heard the half of her.
Shelby Lynne plays the Bowery Ballroom April 10.