Shelby Lynne has had one of the more schizophrenic career arcs in musical history. Since her career began in the late ‘80s, not only has she recorded for at least four different labels, but genre classification has eluded her as much as her contemporary k.d. lang. After starting out as a country artist, the Southern belle has dipped a toe in everything from sweet adult contemporary to rough-around-the-edges blue eyed soul. While casual fans will know her best for her surprise 2001 Grammy win for Best New Artist (over a decade after her career actually began), Shelby has created an interesting body of work over the past two decades, and it’s compiled here in The Definitive Collection...
... Sort of. While the album’s 19 tracks offer brief snapshots of Lynne’s travels, 12 of them come from two albums—her 2000 breakout I Am Shelby Lynne and the Glen Ballard-produced followup, 2001’s Love, Shelby. So, while it isn’t totally a “definitive” collection, it is a good sampler of her Universal Music (Mercury and Island) work, while dropping in bits and pieces of her earlier and later music.
Lynne’s more recent recordings have a world-weariness that must be a by-product of her rough upbringing. Quite possibly the second thing people identify Lynne with (after the Grammy win) is the oft-quoted fact that her parents died in a horrific murder-suicide when Lynne was a teenager, leaving her to care for herself and her sister (the equally talented—and now married to Steve Earle—Alison Moorer). Maybe I’m projecting (assuming?) here, but Lynne’s singing has a “been there, done that” shell that gives her roots-rock excursions a tough edge that other performers like Sheryl Crow try for often but don’t always succeed with.
This isn’t always apparent in her earliest work, which finds Lynne bouncing all over the country map. “Feelin’ Kind of Lonely Tonight” is legitimate honky-tonk, while 1989’s “The Hurtin’ Side” could very easily fit on a Dixie Chicks album. Tracks like “I’ll Lie Myself to Sleep” and “It Might Be Me” find Shelby trying to negotiate a country sound with a bit of an adult-contemporary appeal. The latter song, particularly, has a roof-rattling vocal from Lynne. Make the arrangement a wee bit poppier, throw a diva like Whitney Houston under the mic, and you’d have been looking at a prototypical mid-‘90s #1 hit. These tracks are all solid, but it’s with the I Am Shelby Lynne tracks that her artistry really begins to shine.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve gotta say that the first I heard of Lynne was with the announcement of her Best New Artist nomination. That (as well as some serious sale pricing) led me to I Am Shelby Lynne, and I was blown away in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been had I discovered her prior to this album. Listening to this album was like having someone put Roseanne Cash, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Sheryl Crow in a blender and mix them up. There were raised-eyebrow country/rock rave-ups (“Life Is Bad”), tear-stained soul ballads (“Leavin”, with a great spoken intro and call-and-response background vocals), and songs like the sarcastic midterm heartbreak of “I Thought It Would Be Easier”. I Am Shelby Lynne is one of the definitive singer/songwriter records of the past 20 years, and while two-thirds of it is represented on this compilation, you’d probably be served just as well getting the original album.
After that album’s relative success and the Grammy win, Lynne decided to go for the brass ring-hiring super-producer Glen Ballard (who’s worked for everyone from Aerosmith to Michael Jackson) and shaving down her rough edges. While that album was a bit of a splash of cold water in the face of everyone who’d fallen in love with I Am Shelby Lynne, it’s not as bad as revisionist history would have you believe. Basically, it consisted of fairly typical pop/rock in a singer/songwriter not unlike (here we go again) Sheryl Crow. Out of the five songs from that era that pop up here, the best one, ironically, is the bluesy “Break Me Open”, which appeared on a pre-release sampler but wound up getting cut from the album itself. At any rate, Love, Shelby tanked, leading to a parting of the ways for Lynne and Universal. The last two selections on this compilation date from Lynne’s current tenure with Capitol Records, a marriage that has resulted in 2003’s astounding Identity Crisis (from which the bare-bones “Telephone” is included) and 2005’s Suit Yourself (the country/folk of “Where Am I Now” finds Lynne doing the music that was hinted at during the beginning of her career, but on her terms). These final tracks find Shelby working with a songwriter and producer who’s extremely sympathetic to her sound-HERSELF.
She may have blown up too late to catch fame among the Great Female Singer/Songwriter boom of the mid-‘90s, so her notoriety has not reached Sheryl, Alanis or Fiona levels, but Shelby Lynne’s music is as good as and more adventurous than any of the three I have just named (not to mention the fact that she is a stunning live performer, a fact that caused me to gush to the artist that she “took me to church” upon a chance backstage meeting). Although she has at least two albums that are worthy of the term classic and should be purchased on their own, The Definitive Collection is a great place to discover the talent that is Shelby Lynne.