Shelby Lynne was destined to be a singer. Born a singer. She was raised in rural Alabama by musical parents who stressed individuality and the importance of standing apart from others.
Lynne was born Shelby Lynne Moorer in Quantico, Virginia, in 1968 and spent most of her childhood in Jackson, Alabama. Her father was a local bandleader and her mother a harmony-singing teacher; as children, she and her younger sister Allison — later a country recording artist in her own right — sometimes joined their parents on-stage to sing along. A terrible student, but avid reader, Shelby loved the written lyric and a beautiful melody. Around the house she was surrounded by country music from the past, Hank Williams, Dottie West, Waylon Jennings, as well as old 45s that belonged to her parents stacked high: Everly Brothers, Beatles, Elvis.
The harmonies that came so naturally to her from such an early age stemmed from her mother, a naturally gifted singer, who guided the diamond in the rough talent on rides to school on freezing Alabama mornings with her younger sister Allison. They sang three part harmonies to pass the time, which brought the threesome so close in life, and in music.
However, that sunny picture does not tell the whole story.
Lynne’s father was a violent alcoholic who when Lynne was 17, shot his wife dead in the family’s driveway, then turned the gun on himself while his daughters looked on. Lynne stops short of analyzing her father’s demons, of trying to explain what made him suddenly turn homicidal. More than 20 years later, she says she has wasted too much of her life on the whys and what-ifs, “and it ain’t worth a damn, because in the end things are the way they’re supposed to be.” She has come to forgive her father, and she and her sister, country singer Allison Moorer, wish that people would let the matter rest.
“People think we’re in tremendous pain,” Lynne said, “but we want everyone to know that we’re O.K.”
In the wake of the shootings, Lynne took charge of raising her sister and married her high school sweetheart (albeit briefly) prior to their move to Nashville. There, Lynne recorded some demo songs, which landed her an appearance on TNN’s Nashville Now series. That, in turn, led to a duet with George Jones, for 1988’s Top 50 hit “If I Could Bottle This Up,” and a record deal with Epic, where Lynne teamed up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill.
By the time Shelby Lynne won her Best New Artist Grammy, she’d already completed six albums and had over a decade of recording experience under her belt. Yet in a way, the award was appropriate, since I Am Shelby Lynne was the album that finally found her taking control of her music, following years of casting about in search of an identity.
Over the last decade Lynne has broken new artistic ground with each recording she has released: her stripped down intimate collection of originals, (Suit Yourself, 2005); a tribute to Dusty Springfield (Just a Little Lovin’); followed by a jazzy group of originals (Tears, Lies and Alibis, 2010); a Christmas album (Merry Christmas, 2010); her first explicit exploration of her family’s violent past (Revelation Road, 2011); an expanded reissue of her break-out record, I Am Shelby Lynne; a gospel inflected EP (Thanks, 2013); and finally, Lynne’s 13th full-length album and her first for Rounder Records, a dazzling showcase of emotion-packed vocals and the richly textured storytelling rooted in the Southern tradition of her Alabama upbringing (I Can’t Imagine, 2015).
On Revelation Road Lynne wrote, produced, and performed every note, a first for her. While her songs have always been confessional, the 11 tracks featured here, composed in a variety of genres but all of them more or less within Americana’s broad landscape, are more intimate than anything she’s issued previously. This includes the harrowing “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” which directly addresses the killing of Lynne’s mother by her father before he committed suicide in front of her and her sister. In other words, this is the record she’s had to make her entire career.
Revelation Road is the quietest record of Lynne’s career, but it feels like her rawest, too, even as it offers, in small bits and pieces, the varying shades, complexities, and pleasures in her musical world.
Shelby Lynne is all about the vibe, so that’s why it made perfect sense to the singer-songwriter to take a record she started at home in California and finish recording it in the heart of Cajun country, at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana.
“Anytime you go to the South, it just naturally sings something — whether it’s mournful or joy. There’s something about the South that naturally tells its own story. So when you involve your own stories with it, which is the goal, it’s a combination of something that’s already there and hopefully something to come.”
After getting fed up with the music business, Shelby Lynne, always true to herself, walked away and formed her own Everso label in 2010. Now, after releasing three excellent recordings on Everso, she chose this time around to look to Rounder Records for I Can’t Imagine. Recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana with a small band and a few select guests, the set’s ten tracks run a gamut of styles Lynne’s explored in the past. Once again the Lynne self-produces with assistance from her music director Ben Peeler, and wrote or co-wrote everything here.
Two fine songs, “Love Is Strong” and “Be in the Now,” were co-written with Ron Sexsmith. The former is a ballad that weds Patsy Cline countrypolitan to post-psych pop. The latter features rootsy flatpicking and slide guitars offset by a drum break and a funky electric piano line worthy of Allen Toussaint. The hardest rocking cut, “Down Here,” a militant anthem to tolerance, recalls Neil Young’s “Southern Man” in places. It would be right at home on contemporary country radio if the song’s pro-gay stance didn’t contradict the format’s radically conservative views.
I Can’t Imagine is confident, assured, and fiercely independent. What ties its various threads together is the songwriter’s unguarded heart, expressed by her near iconic vocal prowess, and we’ve come to expect nothing less from Lynne.
Lynne and her sister Alison Moorer went back to Alabama together in 2002, during Lynne’s timeout, to take care of some property they owned. “It was time for me to build some fences,” she said. She wrote poetry and thought about quitting the music business altogether, but even when she started making records again, she took the best of Alabama with her back to California, where she lives just outside Palm Springs. She gardens, mows her own grass, fixes everything herself, a talent she says she got from her father. “I don’t exercise,” she said, “but I’ll do any kind of manual labor.”
When she’s not on the road, a typical Friday night for Lynne means having some friends over for a bottle of wine and playing records, just as the family used to do in Alabama. “I don’t have an iPod,” she said. “I have a computer that I turn on occasionally. I still have all my vinyl. Sissy” — her nickname for Moorer, who lives in New York with her husband, the alt-country singer Steve Earle — “says she has no room in her apartment for records, but I’d keep mine even if I had to sleep on them. You can’t roll a joint on an iPod.”
A complicated artist but one I think everyone should hear.