Shelby Lynne’s defining moment occurred during her acceptance speech for Best New Artist at the 2000 Grammy Awards ceremony. The category had been the topic of jokes by the industry and many in the public ever since Milli Vanilli won the award, but winning does bring notice and can catapult record sales of an unknown act. The feisty Lynne used her moment in the spotlight to express indignation. She noted that it took “13 years and six albums” to be recognized as a new artist. She felt proud of her past body of work and did not intend to dismiss its value. Not mentioning this fact at that moment might have been better for her career. Maybe it didn’t matter anyway. Eminem and Elton John performing the song “Stan” together received the bulk of media attention that night because of the sexual politics involved. Much of the media attention Lynne did receive focused on her skimpy outfit and ample cleavage rather than what she said anyway.
Lynne first dented the country music charts with a duet with the legendary George Jones more than ten years prior to her Grammy. Some thought the honey-voiced Southern songstress was going to be the next Tammy Wynette or Melba Montgomery, and Lynne certainly had the chops. However, Lynne became packaged by different producers and record labels and sang in a number of different Country styles with various degrees of success. What made her special got lost in the mix. Her breakthrough discI Am Shelby Lynne (the album that won her the Grammy) distinctively separated her from the other female vocalists with fine voices. The record gave her an identity as a sultry, Southern singer with soul. Comparisons to Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin replaced previous associations with country music divas.
Glen Ballard, famous for producing Alanis Morissette’s mega-selling Jagged Little Pill produced Lynne’s next album Love, Shelby, which sold dismally and met with negative reviews. However her self-produced disc that followed, Identity Crisis received many critical accolades and improved sales. Her latest self-produced release Suit Yourself seems poised to do even better. Lynne will also make her film debut in the forthcoming movie about Johnny Cash and June Carter, Walk the Line. She plays Johnny Cash’s mother.
Suit Yourself is a passionate disc full of heart, soul, and grit. While Lynne played every instrument but bass on the stripped down Identity Crisis, this is a band record where the instruments jam, swell, and crash against each other as Lynne sings overtop and in and out of the mix. Then there’s also the matter of the unusual production. Lynne used analog equipment and recorded in her living room and other informal locales rather than a studio. She includes snippets of conversation, incomplete takes, and other unpolished elements to give the disc an organic, natural vibe.
Lynne cancelled her first scheduled interview with PopMatters, and she didn’t sound so thrilled to speak the second time. She wasn’t rude, just terse. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Lynne possesses such a sensual speaking voice that one just wants her to talk more and bathe in the sound of her Southern drawl. Lynne lives in California now, but her regional accent still drips heavy from her lips.
There’s no song or lyric on Suit Yourself that uses the phrase “suit yourself.” “Everyone should simply suit themselves,” Lynne said cryptically over the phone from her Palm Springs home. She didn’t explain further and the pause grew into a long minute. I prodded her further. “My grandmother used to say ‘suit yourself’ to me when I was a girl. She wanted me to go to college when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a rock star. She would say, ‘Suit yourself’ instead of arguing with me.” Lynne strongly believes in the importance of being an individual and being true to oneself.
“That’s what I so admired about Johnny Cash and June Carter,” Lynne said. “Their music wasn’t a big influence on me. It was their character, their individual styles, what they were like as people. They weren’t afraid to stick out.” Lynne wrote a beautiful song about the pair on the day Cash died called “Johnny Met June.” About halfway into the tune it becomes clear that Lynne’s story isn’t about the first time the couple met, but their recent new encounter in the afterlife. By the time Lynne gets to “And everything we ever heard about heaven is true”, one feels happy that Cash died so that he could be reunited with his true love.
Love and death are the great themes of Western literature and Lynne’s music. On another song Lynne defiantly cries the title lyrics, “I won’t die alone” over and over again. “I don’t know what that means,” Lynne said. The truth is we all die alone, even if one dies at the same time and in the same place with others. “I don’t care what it means,” Lynne bristles. “I want people to dig in and figure out what it is for themselves.” Fair enough; Lynne is an artist who wants listeners to be a part of the creative process rather than to feed on predigested pabulum.
“The song is what matters. I don’t analyze it,” Lynne said. “What I write is true to the song. I don’t make records for the radio. In fact I like to aggravate radio people. I don’t write songs for critics or reviewers. I don’t care what they think. I write for the sake of the song.” Critics may love Lynne’s new record because it contains great tunes like “Johnny Met June” and “I Won’t Die Alone”, but she’s right about radio. Several songs contain stopped takes and/or spoken interruptions that are decidedly radio-unfriendly, and one song—“I Cry Everyday”—stops completely for a few seconds and seems to be over before continuing on. This would drive a deejay nuts because there is nothing worse than dead air on commercial radio. However, these elements make the record more enjoyable for playing in its entirety on one’s own equipment. The spontaneity and surprise deepen the experience.
Alanis Morrisette recently released an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill without Glen Ballard’s production. Many people thought the problem with Lynne’s Love, Shelby was the direct result of Ballard’s slick production techniques. Now that Lynne has produced two successful records on her own, I wondered if she thought of doing what Morrisette had done. Lynne laughed out loud. “Never,” she said. “Nope, no way.” It was clear Lynne didn’t even want to discuss it as she was evidently happy with the record as it was.
The last track on Suit Yourself is simply called “Track 12”, which turns out to be her rendition of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”. Lynne also covers White’s “Old Times Sake” on the disc. Lynne considers White a true friend and a great musician. Her version of “Rainy Night in Georgia” is a slow burning, quiet seven-plus minutes, blues ballad. “That song is so popular that people might say they don’t need to hear it again, so I didn’t give it a title. I wanted people to listen to it first and then decide,” Lynne said. Indeed, in this age where many great songs have lost their potency due to being overplayed, it is sometimes hard to hear with fresh ears. Lynne’s slow groove is a welcome new approach to the old standard. “It’s all about the music,” Lynne said, “I don’t separate myself from what I play. Just listen and if you don’t like it, well, suit yourself.”