The Barbaric (and Poetic) Yawp of Shelby Lynne

Most critics interpreted Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society as a mournful critique of the vitality-destroying technocratic social structure of ’50s America. While it’s certainly mournful, the film makes a more important, overlooked point. As John Keating leaves the classroom to his students defying their autocratic headmaster’s orders by standing on their desks, he is not leaving in wistful triumph, but utter defeat.

His defeat is symbolic of the final and definitive passing of one era in human history to another. Namely, poetry had died. And with it, its ability to express the range and depth of pre-electronic human emotion. Radio, mass-marketed music sold through easily replicated record formats, and quickly television, were the final nails in its coffin. By the ’50s the slow, nature-oriented world that the poetry Keating reveled in no longer existed. In many ways poetry only makes sense in a world lit by candle light.

But like the first movement of Rachmaninov’s “Op. 45 For Two Pianos”, as two world’s collide beauty eventually emerges from chaos. The world that Keating’s students were inheriting would yield some of the most impressive human achievements history has ever known. Similarly, as people today walk through the Musee D’Orsay like confused time travelers gazing at paintings that are inscrutable to them, so to is the relatively modern pre-Internet world quickly sliding through our fingers.

A recent advertisement for Urban Outfitters is cleverly disguised as a DIY zine, complete with cheap newsprint. As unique, authentic experience becomes increasingly scarce in a world where all counter-cultures have more or less given way to one mass culture, authenticity becomes a last ditch marketing tool.

Shelby Lynne’s is an authentic, and uniquely American, story that is relevant to the currently fractured nature of our moment in history. Her biography contains the elements of the dark side of the American narrative that whispers underneath the best country music. Without tragedy there would be no poetry, and without violence, hinted-at sordid sexuality, and a longing for home (real or imagined), there would be no country music. While Lynne would probably cringe at being called a contemporary country artist, with all that implies, if you listen closely to her music you’ll hear the reverb-soaked tear jerking ballads of the Nashville Sound, the golden of age of country music which included singers like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

But who is Shelby Lynne? Take a look at her back catalog and you’ll see album covers of a scantily clad temptress, a permed nouveau-country maven, a meaningful indie artist, and more than one as a short-haired Daughter of Bilitis. The range of looks and attitudes is enough to confound any record label marketing department. Part of the reason is that in many ways Lynne is representative of a damaged country music industry. In the heyday of the Grand Ol’ Opry and Classic Country, meaning and artistry coincided with business. Artists were able to sing songs that would summon tears and still afford Nudie jackets.

As country music declined and became the diluted amalgamation of rock and pop that it is today, artists like Lynne lost their place. The simultaneous oddness and heartbreak of country music, which came out of the folk tradition, is now impossible to find in modern country. Meanwhile, Shelby Lynne and similar artists have been relegated to the niche of Americana; a genre that generally guarantees little in the way of album sales.

The same push towards meaninglessness has infected most forms of media nowadays, including radio. However, despite the recent attempt to de-fund public radio there are still stations clinging to a listener-supported, community focused business model. This allows some station’s DJ’s to generally play what they like, with a focus on variety and quality, as opposed to the still pervasive payola of large, corporate-based radio. Los Angeles’s KCRW is an example of one of these stations, which because of its management’s obsession with music has become one of the leaders in American public radio. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is where Lynne in all her uncategorizable glory has been embraced.

It’s difficult to imagine why if you have ever been there, but Lynne currently lives in the desert to the east of Los Angeles. She recently trekked into town to record a live show to benefit KCRW, the station’s publicists inviting the typical cadre of journalists, bloggers, and musical Illuminati to witness the event. Most of them double-fisting free drinks, they stood around for an hour watching the perhaps five foot tall Lynne perform an all-acoustic set of the songs off her newest album, Revelation Road.

Dressed in the decidedly butch attire of a white t-shirt, black vest, jeans and Doc Martens, and lacking any hairdressing or makeup, it seemed like Lynne was trying to convey a message to the audience. She alluded to it during the interview portion of the show when the DJ, Anne Litt, asked her why she wanted to start her own label to release her music. “I get to do what I want to do,” was Lynne’s reply.

For certain records live versions are always better. They seem to convey the emotion and meaning that the relatively sterile record didn’t. Part of what comes with producing your own music is that the artist can tend to focus on musical perfection to the detriment of feeling. Likewise, without a producer to say when enough is enough, instrumentation can quickly get too complicated and the soul of the song lost. While not true for every self-produced record, this is the case for Lynne’s Revelation Road, which she not only produced and recorded herself, but also played every instrument on.

The live version was entirely different. Standing there watching her play, the Los Angeles gentry didn’t entirely know what to do with themselves. There was much shuffling of items from the casual section of Burberry and Abercrombie. The woman who stood alone before them quietly strumming an acoustic guitar and singing songs of wrenching spiritual death and not-quite-perfect redemption, was someone who at one time would have been the heir to the country throne.

For an hour experience and talent came together as Lynne held the attention of the room with her songs, and honored the muse which gave rise to them. Poetry is dead, country music has flat-lined, and the music industry is quickly self-immolating, but that doesn’t mean that the music itself is in trouble. It just means you need to look harder.

Shelby Lynne plays KCRW’s syndicated music show, Morning Becomes Eclectic on Monday, February 6th, 2012. Listen for free via KCRW’s livestream here. After 6 February, the link will become an archive of the performance.