News from the Tennessee Valley Living Today

Shelby Lynne delivers intimate experience

By David Bauder
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Shelby Lynne is one hard woman.

She greets a visiting journalist without a smile. Within minutes, she accuses him of having already written his story based on preconceptions, and emphasizes how little she likes this part of her job. She proudly recounts how often she's told that it's difficult to get close to her.

Shelby Lynne Country singer, Alabama native
AP Photograph
Shelby Lynne, country singer and Alabama native
Whoa! Back off!

It's an amusing irony given that her latest work, "Suit Yourself," is one of the most intimate CDs you're likely to experience. It's like sitting on a back porch with Lynne's honeyed Alabama voice singing her unique mixture of soul, country and rock directly to you.

Lynne radiates unapproachability, yet writes a song called "I Cry Everyday." In the song "Iced Tea" she sings with heart-melting tenderness: "There's no better place to be than in your eyes, there's no other sight to see. You're the cornbread and iced tea of life."

"I've always been fascinated by Shelby Lynne," says Nashville songwriter Rodney Crowell. "I've always been fascinated by the enigma of Shelby Lynne, in which I see a very vulnerable, small, birdlike creature — so vulnerable and at the same time so angry."

Lynn's disc actually was recorded in two homes — hers and engineer Brian Harrison's. Several of the vocals were first takes. The inclusion of some false starts and studio noise, including guitarist Tony Joe White urging another band member to "come on, play" during a languid reading of "Rainy Night in Georgia," adds to the relaxed feel.

"It's a close record, we were all very close doing it," she said, "and I felt it was worth sharing."

Grammy winner

It's the third disc since breaking free of a restrictive Nashville scene with the album "I Am Shelby Lynne," a declaration of independence that won her a Grammy for best new artist.

Much of that good will was squandered with a polished follow-up produced by Glen Ballard that both hid her strengths and failed to have the commercial impact Capitol Records clearly wanted.

Lynne, 36, who grew up in Clarke and Monroe counties in Southwest Alabama, produced 2003's "Identity Crisis" by herself. Capitol's desire to see her with an outside producer again led to an aborted effort. Instead, Lynne recorded many of her vocals and acoustic guitar at home in California, usually on the day she wrote the songs, and added the band during sessions at Harrison's Nashville-area home.

"They would like for me to have commercial success, but it's a weird, strange thing for me because I don't know how to do that and be happy," she said. "I tried it their way. It didn't work. This is the outcome."

Too often when working with a producer, "it turns into their thing," she said.

"And it's not really their thing," she said. "It's mine. It flows easier when I produce it. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about egos involved. I choose the players carefully and get the songs done."

But she's angered by any suggestion the approach was born of failure related to the Ballard project, and said it doesn't mean she won't try another producer in the future.

The disc also illustrates her development as a songwriter. Her vivid images on "Sleep" makes the most mundane act seem sensual. She wrote it while suffering from insomnia and after getting it done, finally got some sleep.

One of the most-noticed tunes, "Johnny Met June," was written on the day Johnny Cash died. She found the silver lining in a sad event, imagining Cash reunited in heaven with his wife.

"I was truly glad that, in my view, they could be together again," she said. "This world can use some more romance."

Songwriting wasn't encouraged during the early part of her career. One of the first songs she wrote was the exquisitely soulful "Leavin"' from "I Am Shelby Lynne."

"I played it for my Nashville people at the time," she said. "They freaked out. They didn't know what to do with it . . . I didn't get frustrated by it. I didn't expect them to get it."

Varied styles

Lynne is one of those artists impossible to pigeonhole stylistically, which is wonderful for people who like musicians who follow their own path and not someone else's. But it also makes her dependent on a laborious process of word-of-mouth to get noticed; she's not the darling of any radio format that will give her a hit.

Capitol tried one clever approach, a documentary-type film about how "Suit Yourself" was recorded, which was played for free on Direct TV.

The inevitable calluses built up from dealing with the music business accounts for part of that tough shield around her.

"I don't know how not to be negative about it," she said. "There's just too much out there. You have to really have an idea of what you're looking for. How are you going to have the idea to look for the kind of records I make when there's nothing to compare it to?"

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