In a time when musicians continue to struggle to find their footing in an uncertain market environment, few artists have managed to succeed in pursuing the independent path of Shelby Lynne.
In an industry often rooted in convention, Shelby Lynne is a true artist’s artist, demonstrating eclectic interests reflected in work spanning a wide range of styles, including traditional country, R&B, Western swing, blues, soul, pop, jazz and alt-country. She made her debut in Nashville in 1987 to much promise, recording a debut single with legend George Jones and receiving acclaim as one of the industry’s top emerging artists, winning the Country Music Association’s Horizon award for best new artist in 1991. After three albums, she left her original label Epic, and took a detour in 1993 with Temptation, an adventurous album of big band Western swing influenced by Bob Wills, followed in 1995 by Restless, an album that further challenged the boundaries of country, blending R&B, blues, and jazz influences.
Revelation Road (Deluxe Edition)
(Everso; US: 19 Nov 2012)
And then in 2000, she reemerged with I Am Shelby Lynne, an album that in crossing over into the alt-country/indie rock realms, perhaps shocked the industry in such a manner that she got mistaken for a newbie. Shelby sheepishly accepted the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2001, deadpanning at the awards ceremony that it took only “13 years and six albums to get here.”
Shelby continues to pursue an adventurous path, whether it be recording a critically-acclaimed tribute to Dusty Springfield, appearing on screen as Johnny Cash’s mama in Walk the Line, or starting her own record label, which offers her an opportunity to mentor other emerging artists.
In 2011, Shelby released the most personal record of her career, Revelation Road, which took a bittersweet look at her past, and followed up the album last year with a series of acoustic shows.
The first and most lasting impression from meeting Shelby, as she sat down with PopMatters earlier this year before a show in New York is her pride in the work she puts into each effort, in this instance the additional work that went into developing a special edition of Revelation Road. “You’ve got to give people bang for the buck, that’s important. I always put myself in the buyer’s shoes. As a music fan, I know what I would appreciate getting, so that’s at the forefront of everything I do. First off, making the best possible records I can, the best honest records I can, which are always reflections of where I am in my life. It’s puzzling to me at times, how I do it, in a way that people are comfortable enough that they want to get into it too. I’m always trying to figure that out.”
On Revelation Road, Shelby in addition to handling songwriting, recording, and production herself, she played all of the instruments. Did this involve much coordination? “No. Because if you plan everything to death, it’s gonna suck. I don’t like to plan much. I have like a general schedule. But that’s most likely gonna change. As far as the music goes, I write the best possible song I can. I don’t have a process except I sit down. if I’m in the mood to write, I do. If I’m not, I don’t. I know if I’ve got something worthy of recording.
“And then I start letting the songs speak to me. What does this song feel like? Mandolin? Maybe it goes like a little acoustic. And then I just really try to serve the song. It sounds kind of strange, but it really is a spiritual process. Songs are gifts. A responsibility to make a soothing, comforting place for them to make people feel good. To make them feel.”
With her pride in putting forth the best effort comes an uncompromising determination. Shelby has started her own record label, Everso Records, after years of dealing with the challenges of the music industry. “I started my own record label because I was sick of dealing with everybody else’s. And you know, it was out of necessity. It is a lot of work. It is difficult. It is costly. It’s a pain in the ass. But then I get to play all the instruments and write all the songs. Do whatever the hell I want to do. I’ll dance with anybody.”
She delivers a message that is likely to resonate with other artists, even if her instincts cue her into feeling like she’s preaching to the choir. “Making the music is easy. That’s the easiest part. I could make a record a week. Getting it out there is what’s hard. And that’s the challenge with record labels. I think that’s the challenge today period, with music. It’s like there’s so much. And you know you have to find your area. I have a little area, that’s just my little area. But who knows, the world is so huge. The digital world, cyber world. There’s no way to even imagine how huge the world is. So it’s a little bit daunting and maybe a little overwhelming if you think about all of the places you could be. But you don’t really know how the hell to get there. So the challenges are just business. I’m not a business person! I don’t know shit about business. I’m a musician! So I hire people to do all that other stuff.”
But Shelby also acknowledges that the process has been informed by her own work with ace producers such as Bill Bottrell, Billly Sherrill and Glen Ballard. “Yeah, otherwise I wouldn’t know how to do it. I mean if you’re too stupid to learn, you’re too stupid to teach. So I always try to learn. I think that’s what we’re here for, to learn something.”
Shelby speaks with passion about her work, and one can easily see her succeeding in transferring that passion over to working with other artists. “This is the thing with my record label. It comes across my desk, with my approval, if it’s creative. Period. The people that I have hired to run my business know now to bother me with business. I’m the creative person. So within my label, I try to keep it as creative as possible. And it does make it easier and more fun to make records when everybody believes in the project. And I hate to call projects projects. That sounds like a label jargon/lingo. It’s like each record should be treated like a special time. Back in the old days, the music we still listen to today, that’s there for a reason. That music was cultivated and loved, and allowed to grow and become classic art. And I would like to do that again with music. The attention span now is really short. But it still doesn’t mean that great music can’t be made. That’s what I’m trying to do is just make great records that will last. And I want to be proud to listen to them.”
In a career characterized by eclectic tastes, she has treasured the opportunity to honor her influences, whether by channeling the spirit of Bob Wills or in recording her tribute album to Dusty Springfield, which she played on the road, including a memorable set at SXSW. “I don’t do that material on the acoustic tour because it doesn’t do the record justice. That’s just like another chapter in my life.” Having recorded with legends George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Tony Joe White are there other artists she’d like to pay tribute to or collaborate with? “There’s lots of people. It’s so difficult to get one person’s record made. Getting with other people to make records is equally as hard, ten times as hard. So I think that’s why it doesn’t happen as often. Everybody has their own set of stuff.”
Shelby seems promise in a DIY environment, and the opportunity that affords unsigned and emerging artists. But she also acknowledges the hazards for artists and fans alike in the resulting clutter. “That’s great. And I think if it’s any good, it will find its way. The end. I still believe in the good old fashioned art. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take some work to get there. It’s all about the quality of the work. Because that will still be here, when all the DIY shit is gone. The quality of the work. It’s the most important.”
Despite being an independent artist, Shelby is refreshing in her emphasis on the fundamentals of the creative process, concentrating on song writing and performance, and deflecting attention on the other business and administrative concerns that today’s artists often obsess about. Even conventions that come with touring such as promotional appearances and artist meet and greets generation a dismissive wave.
“What do artists normally do? I’ll meet somebody if they want to meet me. The meet and greets probably that you’re referring to aren’t like my meet and greets. I have a couple of people, maybe, a night. So I always enjoy meeting anybody that wants to meet me.” And social media? “Computer crap, no! I don’t tweet. Every night when I finish my show, I thank everybody. But I don’t directly tweet. I send it to my girl, exactly the way I want it to be put up. And she puts it up.” But she still loves communicating with fans. “I still get letters and I love it.”
Even as Shelby continues to move on artistically with each new endeavor, she shows the most appreciation for the relationships developed over time, going all the way back to the early days in Nashville. “It’s been 24 years. The only thing I haven’t reconnected with is the records themselves. But my friendships are the same the relationships with the same men and women that I had in those day are stronger than ever.” Shelby treasured keeping in touch with the industry legends that she had the opportunity to work with and bond with including the late George Jones “I talked all the time with George and Nancy. George was a mentor to all of us. Because Jones did it for the history books. There’s no comparison. Nothing we do can ever compare to that. And probably one of the greatest voices ever made by God. Shake the rafters.
“It’s a treasure the people that I’ve kept in touch with through the years, who have seen my renegade way. Still at the end of the day, they’re just friends of mine. So it’s a wonderful thing. Nashville is a warm place in my heart and it’s changed a great deal as we all know. I don’t really listen to the current stuff that much just because I don’t really listen to anything. But I know it’s changed into this sort of kind of corporate big money. I’m just not close to it.”
Shelby pauses, and then just as suddenly, begins to think introspectively about her own work. “I wonder what good it is to make music that’s not loud, does anybody like that?” She reflects on the overwhelmingly positive critical and fan response to Revelation Road, her most recent work which delves head on with the bittersweet memories from a painful past.
“Don’t you think though it’s because it’s just so honest? I mean, it’s not like there’s hit records on there. It’s just my life. I’m starting to think, maybe I shouldn’t be so personal. You tell me.” Indeed, Revelation reveals bittersweet memories of time with her parents and sister, memories other artists would keep hidden. “That wasn’t planned. That was like hey, it’s time to do this for some reason, because I don’t know how to plan stuff out, I don’t. I’m a terrible business person.” The ability to work on what moves her also reminds her why she remains determined to keep progressing forward as an artist.
“It’s the only thing that allows me to sleep at night. It’s not because I love the record business. It’s putting my head on the pillow and going, oh God, I have control of making that record sound a certain way. Moving people, that’s what’s important. There’s little to be gained anymore. We have to find it in ourselves. We’ve already seen and experienced everything there is to experience out here, man. It’s all in us now. Because we’re so fuckin jaded and just, oh yeah, yeah impress me. You know, we’ve gotta find it in here. And sometimes looking in there is a dark place. You know, that’s why we’re always searching out here for it. We don’t want to go in there. And you know, I get to write songs about those miseries. Sometimes I’m up there singing my set and I’m going “god damn every song I sing is sad.” But you know what, I can’t help it, it’s a reflection. It’s a reflection of what I’m feeling. And is it wrong, is it just passion? I believe in that don’t you? It’s not always supposed to be peachy. I like it when it rains.”
And yet, while bringing up memories from her past on Revelation Road, she also seems to be comfortable moving on. Reflecting on Alabama: “I don’t go back there, I haven’t been in years. My sister and I had some property. We sold it, and we haven’t been back. So everything is memories. And that’s fine.” Alabama seems to be at the forefront of the music scene, with the success of the Alabama Shakes and artists such as the Black Keys tapping into the Muscle Shoals legacy. Shelby is adamant. “That’s not my life. I was never a part of that. There’s no need to go back. You can’t go back home.”
Shelby is candid when it comes to the challenges of going up on stage, and reveals a side, the afternoon before a show that most fans don’t get to see. “It’s hard.” She repeats herself for emphasis. “It’s hard. It’s always different.” Fans of Shelby have come to expect as much. For Shelby, it’s often drawing inspiration from what hits her as she approaches the mic. Does she go up on stage with a setlist? “No! I have a list of songs. And I’m bored with them. And I just get ... you know sometimes I just can’t do them. Sometimes I’ll go up and sing old Bob Wills songs. I just can’t fake it. Maybe it’s me, and I have just fretted myself to death over this show. God damn, it’s New York, everybody. And I want it to be so great, I just probably think about it all the time.” Can she take comfort in knowing at least that she will be seeing familiar faces? “I don’t see anybody. I don’t see you. I don’t see anybody. It makes me too nervous.”
Having worked with some great producers, she does find working and discovering other artists to be a joy. “Yeah. I do. And that is definitely in my ever so future. And I’m looking at some ideas.” With so much on the plate, Shelby is reluctant to commit to, or discuss upcoming projects. “I don’t know. Too much to talk about. I mean I’ve got so much going on in my head. I can’t decide yet. So there’s really no way to decide. I might do anything. There’s no way to tell. Like right now, I don’t have any certain plans. We’ll have to see what comes next.”
As we part ways, Shelby exhibits some last minute preshow anxiety, the human side of an artist who cares so much that she’s still a bit worried about how the show will go down, even though her fans have been waiting for months to see her at the City Winery. “And I’m scared to death. I just can’t predict.” Can she at least pretend, just to calm herself, that it’s just another normal Thursday night, in say a small town? “But it’s Monday. And it’s New York.”