After nearly a decade of losing at the big-time Nashville game, Shelby Lynne has a stunning new album, one promoted as her Declaration of Independence from the soulless, clone-crazy monster that is the contemporary country music industry. But I Am Shelby Lynne is also a manifesto, of sorts, for the continued significance of regional distinctiveness. On the lazy "Where I'm From," Lynne may be referring literally to her native Alabama, but she's actually talking about the South. Today's mainstream country music is still made, largely, by Southerners, but you wouldn't necessarily know that by listening; most of it simply sounds like music designed for some unspecified suburb. It's certainly not music particularly adept at conveying the unique quirks and perspectives of specific men and women.
Lynne's new album is all about her perspective. Nearly every song here could've been inspired equally by a lying lover or by a lying label exec -- "I got your message on the phone," she cries early on, "Told me what we had was only business" -- but a substantial portion of the album's power is in the way it matters that Shelby Lynne is a Southerner. Most obviously this comes off in the music, which is country in only the most liberal sense of the term. Lynne and producer Bill Bottrell (who has worked with Sheryl Crow) take us on a country-soul road trip, waving along the way at Dusty in Memphis, Aretha in Muscle Shoals, Sammi Smith in Nashville -- and each old sound gets blended and updated, reborn as part of Lynne's living present. Furthermore, Lynne's songs convey a distinctly Southern comfort with the inevitability of pain and its inseparability from joy: "I'm looking up for the next thing that brings me down," she sighs heavily at one point, and you can hear in her husky drawl that she knows they will both, the up and the down, arrive soon enough. Shelby Lynne finds moments of joy in singing her blues and, like each of us really, her blues are who she is.