By Mike Greenblatt
Can’t blame the whiskey or their Mammy’s ways
2 little girls are better off this way
With that thought in his brain, the father of singers Shelby Lynne and Alison Moorer pulled the trigger on his wife and himself in 1986 when Shelby was 17 and Alison 14. Lynne wrote those words for “Heaven’s only Days Down The Road” from her startlingly personal current album, “Revelation Road.” Released on her own Everso label, she wrote, sang, produced and played every instrument on every track. The song ends with what sounds like two gun shots.
Lynne’s “Road” has been a circuitous one. For 23 years, she’s been one of America’s most enigmatic artists. The 1989 “Sunrise” debut came way too soon for her, but just listen to that voice! With Tammy Wynette’s producer Billy Sherrill at the helm, the pain emanating from those tracks — including a cover of Floyd Tillman’s 1948 “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me” that stands up to versions by Patsy Cline, The Mills Brothers, John Prine, Don Gibson, Tennessee Ernie Ford and even Ray Charles — was so palpable, country radio stayed away. You just can’t sell soap if there’s too much pain in the grooves.
Still, the record might have been prettied up by Nashville’s finest, but its heart and soul belonged to one scared yet defiant little girl. It stands today as one of the greatest country debuts of all time. Epic Records knew it. That’s why they callously threw her back into the studio in an attempt to soften her up for the masses. “Tough All Over” (1990) and “Soft Talk” (1991) simply didn’t work. Shelby was miserable, a walking zombie. Extricating herself from her corporate commitments — but not before developing a reputation in and around Nashville as someone who was hard to work with — she resurfaced on Mercury subsidiary Morgan Creek to work with Judds mastermind Bret Maher on one of the best albums of 1993, “Temptation” (where she unleashed her inner Elvis on “Feelin’ Kinda Lonely Tonight.”)
Still, a pattern of Lynne knocking heads with labels was developing. “Restless,” her swing extravaganza, came out on Magnatone in 1995. She toured that year with a big band. In 1999, another album on another label, “I Am Shelby Lynne,” a perfect pop construction, became a huge hit in England first. Inexplicably, it also garnered her a Grammy (10 years into her career) as “Best New Artist.” This was no country album. Lynne finally gave Nashville the middle finger, settled in California and never looked back.
Label pressure was on to record a follow up in the same mold, but Lynne, who doesn’t like being told what to do, came out instead with “Love, Shelby” (2001, Island). The results were artistically gorgeous, but sales were disappointing, and she was dropped from the label.
And so it went. Two Capitol albums followed, both stunning — “Identity Crisis” (2003) and “Suit Yourself” ( 2005). After her Dusty Springfield tribute album, “Just A Little Lovin’ (2008, Lost Highway) failed to elevate her to the heights of stardom that she so sorely deserved, partly due to a lack of promotion on the part of the label, Lynne started Everso Records with “Tears, Lies & Alibis” in 2010, putting out her “Merry Christmas” album later that year, before the current “Revelation Road.”
Exceedingly private about her personal life, Lynne has always carried herself with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Independently tough, outrageously talented, with the magic ability to sing as if she’s singing only to you, Lynne is almost the living incarnation of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.”
Goldmine: This album is so personal. Y’know how they say how Hank Williams wrote songs of pain? Well, Hank can’t touch you for pain.
Shelby Lynne: He didn’t live long enough.
GM: Was “Revelation Road” cathartic?
SL: No. I’m healed. I just write songs. I’m not in pain anymore. I just use the emotion to create the art.
GM: “I’ll Hold Your Head” is delicate, like if you dropped it, it would shatter into a million pieces. Yet, you’ve always been so strong.
SL: I think it’s just because my life has changed. I’ve grown. I’m in such a peaceful place right now … a good place, that I was able to write these songs. It was time.
GM: In “I Want To Go Back,” you write that “singin’ don’t always suit my every need/it’s a necessity so I won’t fall to pieces in my empty room.” That’s dark.
SL: Yeah, it’s dark, alright. But, y’know what? I feel like I can’t not write it if that’s what falls on to the paper. However personal it is, it has to be what I want to express. I can’t hide in a closet with it. It’s important for me to put those kinds of words and feelings on my album. It’s my job, my duty. I was telling somebody the other day that even though I’m healed, feeling right, feeling really glorious, in fact, it may not be that comfortable for the listener, but it’s still necessary. I have to do what I’m doing because I’m feeling those heavy emotions. Then when I’m singing live, it’s a whole ‘nother thing, because songs take on another life out there every night.
GM: Your voice is so soothing, intimate and sensual, it’s like getting a massage. That said, sometimes the meanings of the lyrics drift by like cigarette smoke and evaporate in the air because one could get lost in the melodies themselves.
SL: It’s just the way things are supposed to be. If there’s any trick to what I’m doing, I certainly don’t know about it. Sometimes the truth has to be blurted out there, plain and simple. You either get it or you don’t. That line “singin’ don’t always suit my every need” is truth. Sometimes it’s just too painful to sing. Then I’ll take a break, and maybe I’ll feel better later.
GM: So after an album like this, what do you possibly do next? Rhyme moon, June and spoon on a happy all-purpose album?
SL: I’ve done that already, so, no. I’m not thinking about what’s next right now.
GM: You say you’re in a good place right now. Is that because you’re performing alone on a stage with just your guitar, your songs, on a consistent basis for audiences across the country who love you and you certainly must be feeling that love? Or, is that happiness contingent upon whatever’s going on in your personal life right now?
SL: I’m happy with who I am. Finally. I’ve reached a point where I’m confident. I can put on a pair of blue jeans, boots and t-shirt and go out there and sing for people. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be anything but me and songs and a whole lot of love. Funny: It’s been there all along. I just had to go around the universe to find it. I live a very simple life. I like to be at home in my garden with my dogs and enjoy the peace I’ve finally been able to attain. I’ve had to learn, through the years, to enjoy the peace when I’m not working. Maybe creating. Writing something that’s not a song. Working on my paintings. But I do love to work. I’ve worked more in the last two years with this label than I have in a long time. Working for the man didn’t do it for me. Having my own label is much more exciting.
GM: If “Heaven’s Only Days Down The Road” is from the point of view of your dad, who is the last track, “I Won’t Leave You,” from the point of view of?
SL: Me. I have several people who I’m singin’ to there. It’s too personal to bring up names. I would never do that anyway. The song is as simple as what it says. I wrote it in five minutes. At first, I didn’t even want to put it on the record, because it’s such a little ditty, but my team coerced me. As the songs were coming together, it kind of started selling itself to me about my childhood, mommy and daddy, growing up, and where I am now, how I deal with the past, and how I let it go, how I let any turmoil slip way out of my mind. Sometimes the songs themselves are difficult for me to explain. I try to write ‘em in a way that everybody can find some truth in ‘em.
GM: How’s the solo tour going? No band!
SL: I’ll tell you, there’s nothing better. What an experience! It’s changed everything about my excitement level of getting out there performing. I can honestly say, in all my years of doing it, I’ve never looked more forward to gettin’ on a stage. It’s kind of like going on a date. It’s me and them. And the songs. The songs do the talkin’. Which makes it easy on the date, you don’t have to do any talkin’. But I have the time and I seem to have more patience with the songs and enjoying the moment. That’s something I’ve learned to do in my life is try to enjoy every moment, y’know? So, up there, I really have a chance to do my thing. I love playing the guitar. I’m up there playing the hell out of it every night. It’s so much fun. People always knew I played a little bit but never really knew I played a lot. It’s nice that people can see I really can play.
GM: When you played New York City the last time you had a rock band and you played some electric lead guitar!
SL: I love that too. But for this record it works to do it by myself. It’s a really intimate, a really quiet situation. It’s pretty unique for me.
GM: You seem to have reached a state of equilibrium in your life and career. I’ve always said it was as if you had something to prove, the way you carried yourself, and now, you don’t have anything to prove anymore. Was my assessment right?
SL: Yeah. I think that’s part of it. I think another thing is that I’ve always felt so much responsibility for everybody on stage. I might be a little bit of a control freak but at the same time there’s a lot going on up there and I could never really get it right. I mean, sure, there were times when I got it right but there were times when it was just a big old mess. I’ve never been real famous for rehearsing. I can’t rehearse. I never really rehearse. So, knowing bands require a little rehearsing, I never felt too comfortable up there, but I still felt responsible for all their notes and tones … so I could never get satisfied. It probably has a lot to do with my own inner self, but I was never a really easy band boss. I never could get happy with anything, really. And by the time I got out there, it was like, “Oh, f**k it. Let’s just do the best we can.”
GM: But it always worked. I’ll never forget you opening for Kenny Rogers on a Christmas tour …
SL: Oh god.
GM: And you broke out “I Feel Good” by James Brown. I fell in love with you all over again because of that. Never did stick around for Kenny.
SL: I think about those country days, those bands, those records. I was so unhappy with the records early on that I’d do anything on stage but that material. So yeah, I’d break out the James Brown, Roy Head, stuff that felt good. I was all about doing a good show, and if I had to sing the songs on my records, I could not do a good show. Now when I did the swing thing, I loved that. It was with a Big Band. You saw that. That was a blast.
GM: I know you hated “Tough All Over” and “Soft Talk.” You once told me you cried in the recording studio at being forced to rush release that product. But “Sunrise?” It was better than other debuts that year by Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black. You were all of 20.
SL: Well, I mean, I don’t really…
GM: It’s like another person recorded that album.
SL: I can’t like it. I didn’t like anything. How could I like that album? I was like an invisible person. I recorded it a year and a half after my parents died. You can’t be a relevant human being. I was just a walking ghost. So who knows? I think back at those times and I barely remember it. I do know it wasn’t fun.
GM: “Temptation” was a step up.
SL: Yeah, because I said, “F**k, y’all.” I realized at that point that I didn’t care if I ever made it on to country radio. They don’t know what’s doing anyway. I knew I had to make good records to survive all this. I’m trying to have a career here. That’s when I started making good records. It’s been some journey. As I said, I’m happier now than ever. I kinda feel like I know what I’m doing now. Sh*t, after 24 years. Took a while, eh?