Tough All Over
Shelby Lynne stands up for herself in music and life
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELENA RAY
Given her Country Music Association awards, Shelby Lynne’s disdain for the genre strikes a curious note. “I’m so lucky I don’t have a hit record, some silly little country thing I cut 15 years ago and have to sing forever,” she says. “I don’t want anybody to think I’m what country music is, because it sucks. I want nothing to do with mainstream country, and I never have. I’m sorry, but I don’t mince words.”
Lynne, who recorded a duet with George Jones that earned a spot on the country top 50 list in 1988 (“If I Could Bottle This Up”), admires classic country artists, but considers her Nashville years just a part of her past. For the last 10 years, she has lived in Rancho Mirage.
“Nashville wasn’t satisfying,” she says. “I don’t like that cookie-cutter, everything-has-comic-relief sort of music. Who wants to sing that when you’re 80? It gets frustrating when people think I’m country music. I’m a public radio person. That’s my audience. If it weren’t for National Public Radio, I’d never be on the radio at all.”
Her new CD — Tears, Lies, and Alibis (released in April) — marks her first recording on her own label, Everso Records. After 20 years in the music business, 10 studio albums, and a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2001, Lynne has freed herself from mega record companies.
“I’m very proud I was on Capitol Records before Capitol died,” she says. “I always had a fantasy about working in that building. But I’ve never had an enjoyable record company experience. They are miserable people. Acts like me who don’t sell a ton of records but have industry respect … well, there’s just not enough money to force record companies to deal straight with you. Record companies are basically a bunch of lawyers.”
To illustrate her point, she relates the story of her narrow escape from Capitol in 2008 while recording Just a Little Lovin’, her critically acclaimed cover of the Dusty Springfield catalog.“
There I was downstairs at Capitol. We’d been cutting for a couple of days, but nobody from upstairs had come down to see what we were doing,” she recalls. “We found out they were closing and clearing out their offices. I called Luke Lewis at Lost Highway Records and said, ‘You’re going to have to get this record. And if you don’t do it now, we’ll get stuck in some paper mess.’” Fortunately for Lynne, Luke bought the record.
She dismisses the suggestion that her upbeat new single, “Rains Came,” could be a big crossover hit. “We don’t do hits,” she says. Yet the fact remains that, with no vocal training, Lynne went from nowhere Alabama to a Nashville recording contract within six months of her arrival in Tennessee at the age of 18.
It isn’t too difficult to recognize Lynne’s forced bravado as the armor for a private, contemplative soul who needs the cover of a good offense. Her lyrics give her away. Following “Rains Came,” the rousing opening track from her new CD, a collection of quiet songs float above simple arrangements, carried by a strong, perfectly modulated delivery. Songs full of longing portray a world of pain and emotional complexity. They are anything but predictable, as evidenced by “Something to be Said,” a haunting paean to personal freedom that Lynne wraps around the metaphor of Airsteam trailers.
Although petite and slender, Lynne possesses a big voice. “I’m a belter,” she says, “and I have to take care of my voice. But I don’t even warm up before I sing. I’m too lazy. I just walk out there. I don’t take things that seriously. I want to sing on key and be bad ass; but if it’s not a great night, it’s not a great night.”
In 2005, she began acting, portraying the mother of Johnny Cash in the biopic Walk the Line. Recently, she appeared in an episode of Army Wives.
“Army Wives is Lifetime television. It is what it is,” she says. “But I made fans who had never heard of me. The show is seriously huge, massive. It’s not only every Army wife in the world, but the whole Lifetime demographic.”
Lynne is open to other acting roles, but is foremost a singer/songwriter. That has been her path since she moved to Nashville one year after her father killed her mother and then himself. It is a subject she does not discuss.
“For 20 years, I’ve been fighting dead-parent pieces. It gets exhausting,” she says. “How you deal with what happens is more important than the events themselves.”
With no coaxing, she reveals a goal close to her heart: “I want start my foundation. I haven’t told anyone about this, because it’s in the embryonic stages. My sister and I had wonderful parents; and when our parents died, we had somewhere to go. We lived with my momma’s sister. But there are so many children who are victims of parental murder/suicides who have nowhere to go. We were lucky. We had family, lots of family. I don’t know how, but I want to make a place where these children can go. I’ve got to figure it out. That’s my long-range plan.”
For now, her desires are perfectly clear.
“I was born to sing. That’s what I do,” she says. “I have to sing for a living. I have to write songs. And I have to help people. I’m 40 years old; and I feel, with my new label, I’m going to be able to start that foundation. We all have to give. If you’ve been fortunate like I have, you have to give back.”
Lynne has just returned to the desert after a national tour — playing 24 cities in 33 days to promote her new CD.
“People ask me, ‘Why the desert?’ I say, ‘It’s where my heart told me to stop driving, and I never left.’ Those windmills were speaking to me the first time I saw them.”
Lynne’s upbeat “Rains Came” celebrates desert showers as a welcome relief: “The rain storms seem to make me feel better. The dark side of me seems to like how it feels when it’s pouring.”
“When it rains here, I go outside and stand in it,” Lynne says. “I miss the Southern thunderstorms that inspire me to write songs; but when it rains here, the smell is so powerful — like the desert floor is relaxing and taking a welcomed bath.”
Lynne treasures her privacy and spending time at home with her dogs and her garden.
“I laugh at myself every day when I wake up and have my coffee, walk outside, and see corn growing in my garden,” she says. “I love to cook, so I grow all kinds of herbs and vegetables. The weather here is amazing for growing things. My garden is small because I have to travel so much. But when I am home, it is truly one of my joys to be out in the dry air with my plants. There is nothing like walking in the yard and picking a fresh lemon off of my own lemon tree.
“The South is in my blood,” she continues, “and I am proud of where I am from, but the desert is my home. It’s open, and I have to have that in my life. I live in paradise, and I get to sing for a living. So I’m a happy gal.”