In one of those nonsensical ironies that pepper Grammy Awards history, singer/tunesmith Shelby Lynne won the best new artist trophy for 2000 even though she made her major-label debut in 1989. But she quickly squandered much of the goodwill engendered by this belated recognition by following up her impressive comeback disc, I Am Shelby Lynne, with 2001's Love, Shelby, an album drowning in crossover ambitions. Cover photos and a fold-out poster packaged with the set depicted her as a pop-ready bimbo instead of the resilient, independent woman she is, and the CD's heavy-handed production, by Alanis Morissette-enabler Glenn Ballard, poured studio goop over strong and weak numbers alike. The album's critical and commercial failure brought her professional momentum to an abrupt halt.
Four years later, Lynne is promoting Suit Yourself, an excellent long player that she oversaw herself after determining that earlier sessions were too slick. So is she ready to concede that hooking up with Ballard, whose work certainly fits the latter description, was a mistake? "Absolutely not," she snaps. "Glenn Ballard is brilliant. He's one of the smartest and greatest and most talented individuals I've ever known, and I think that just shows the pettiness and immaturity of not only the reporter world, but the rest of society. If you can't accept change, you can't accept anything. If anybody doesn't like that record, it's because they haven't really listened to that record.
"I think people get conditioned to hearing things a certain way," she continues, her voice growing flintier. "It'd be one thing if it was shit. It'd be one thing if it was bad. But it wasn't. I guess I'll always have to stand around and take up for a record that I dearly love, which is really kind of unfair. But nothing's fair."
This testy pronouncement is typical of Lynne's approach to interviews; she can be cantankerous at times and uses bluntness as a defense mechanism whenever the conversation strays into territory she'd rather not visit. Then again, she has a first-rate reason to be wary. In the mid-'80s, when Lynne was seventeen, her father, an alcoholic bandleader, murdered her mother, a singing instructor, and then killed himself in the driveway of the family's Alabama home as she and her younger sister, singer Allison Moorer, looked on.
In her music, Lynne avoids addressing her loss directly; about the closest she's come is a Love, Shelby cover of John Lennon's "Mother," in which she repeatedly wails the lines, "Mama, don't go/Daddy, come home." She's even less willing to tackle the topic conversationally, instantly shutting down inquiries that threaten to touch upon it. Consider, for instance, a question about "Johnny Met June," a touching highlight from Suit Yourself that Lynne wrote on the morning Johnny Cash died. The match between Cash and his wife, vocalist June Carter, was volatile, especially in their early years together, because of his substance-abuse issues. But ask if she felt a connection to the couple partly because of the characteristics they shared with her parents, and she replies with an extremely brusque "no" that marks this tangent as off-limits.
Still, she can't entirely dodge related subjects, since she makes her big-screen acting debut this November in Walk the Line, a biopic about the Cashes, with Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny to Reese Witherspoon's June. And Lynne? She portrays Carrie Cash, Johnny's mom.
The role is a significant one, and since the flick's action extends from 1935 to 1968, Lynne was required to age more than three decades by its conclusion. This would have been a challenge for any actor, let alone a novice whose most prominent previous credit came in 1991, when she appeared as herself in Another Pair of Aces: Three of a Kind, a television movie co-starring Willie Nelson and directed by Bill Bixby, TV's Bruce Banner. Nevertheless, she actively sought out the part and won it after casting agents were impressed by a videotape of her performing a scene.
The weather during filming, which took place in Nashville and outlying areas, was often sweltering, and a day of torrential rain turned one set into a swamp that practically swallowed every vehicle in the vicinity. She shrugs off the inconveniences, though. The makeup that transformed her into a 69-year old "wasn't that big of a deal. They just put glue on your face, tie your hair up high, and you go do it." As for the costumes, which were authentic from top to bottom, "they felt a little weird. My character had to wear this cone-shaped bra thing. If I wear a bra, it's rare, so that definitely wasn't comfortable, and the nylons were awfully hot -- and I don't wear those in real life, either. But they helped me get into character, so I'm glad they did it right.
"I think I really knew who she was," Lynne says of Carrie. "There wasn't that much information on her, but we know she was a very stoic woman who had a Christian upbringing. She learned to sing in church taught her children to sing in church, and looked out for her family, which, during Johnny's childhood, was very, very poor. It wasn't easy, and that's something I understand."
True enough -- and she admits to having lived through some "wild swings" career-wise, too. She and her sister, whose country hits are gathered on the latter's The Definitive Collection, just released by MCA, abandoned Alabama for Nashville after their parents' deaths. Shortly thereafter, Lynne cut some demos that caught the ear of folks at Epic. Her bow for the imprint, 1989's Sunrise, sported "If I Could Bottle This Up," a duet with George Jones that became a minor hit, and radio programmers also took a liking to 1990's Tough All Over and 1991's Soft Talk -- so much so that Lynne was given the Country Music Association's Horizon Award, a prize for talented newcomers that long preceded her Grammy victory. Her rising reputation was deserved; Epic Recordings, a 2000 compilation, has quite a few enjoyable moments, including her self-assured rendition of (yes, it's true) Cash's "I Walk the Line." But she chafed under the creative restrictions placed upon her and eventually crafted Temptation, a brassy, hard-swinging effort, for Morgan Creek, an indie. Unfortunately, Morgan Creek folded before most people heard the platter, and 1995's Restless, made for the smallish Magnatone imprint, was fated to obscurity as well.
Five years of silence was broken by I Am Shelby Lynne, which traded in straight country for ditties that drew from rock, folk, R&B and lots more. The album was as striking as it was unexpected, and its quality wasn't a fluke. After the Love, Shelby stumble, she signed with Capitol and cut the aptly titled Identity Crisis, a relaxed, relatively low-key return to form that arrived in 2003.
Suit Yourself is even better, although it didn't begin that way. Lynne originally teamed with a producer and sidemen she declines to name, but the fruit of their labor "never saw the light of day," she says. "It was too produced, and it was shit." She calls the decision to toss the tracks "the easiest thing I've ever done. I was like, ŒGoodbye. See you later.' It wasn't hard for me to pull the plug, and I don't know why anybody would have a problem being in that position. If they do, they need to get out." Appropriately, "Go With It," the album's initial song, kicks off with a false start -- a witty touch that anticipates alternately sassy and plaintive offerings such as "Where Am I Now" and "I Cry Everyday." She renders this material in a simple, spare style that allows her talent to shine through unobstructed.
The results can't be categorized, which may make the album difficult to sell. That doesn't mean Lynne's willing to conform to the marketplace, however. "I don't care what they call it, and I don't think about getting played on the radio," she declares. "I think about making great albums. End of story."
There's no telling if Grammy voters will embrace Lynne again, but if she cares one way or the other, she keeps it to herself, as she does plenty of other things in her life. Looking back holds no interest for her.
"I don't have any regrets, and I don't feel the need of talking about the past, because I can't do anything about it," she says. "Even if things don't go exactly the way you want them to go, you have to realize that you were foolish to think they would go exactly the way you wanted them to go, anyway. I'm a forward-moving person."
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