If you go to a Shelby Lynne show nowadays, there’s as a chance she’ll be sitting up there onstage alone with her acoustic guitar, performing bare-bones renditions both of newer, quieter songs and older ones that once received epic studio treatments. She probably won’t revisit the tunes she was handed to sing when she was a young, ballad-belting country diva. That seems like a different lifetime.
But she’ll reach back as far as 2000’s I Am Shelby Lynne for material. A perfect example is that album’s grandiose Southern soul single “Your Lies.” There’s a stripped-down live recording of it among the many extras included with the new, deluxe reissue of last year’s Revelation Road. Lynne was more intimately involved in the making of that spare, supple set of down-home story-songs than any other in her quarter-century career. She wrote it, produced it, played on it and put it out herself.
Now that she’s not allowing herself anything or anyone to hide behind, the central paradox of her music is right out in the open. Even when she’s incredibly intimate, she’s also incredibly guarded. She never reveals everything — not in lyric-writing, vocal performances or interviews. But she buries herself so deeply in her music that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the mystery and subtlety of it.
CMT Edge: You made Revelation Road in your home studio. Can you describe what that space is like?
Lynne: It is a room, one room, with all of my stuff I’ve collected for the last 15 years — guitars and amps and recording gear, which I love. I’m kind of a gear-head freako. I still record on two-inch [tape]. I haven’t moved on to the [computer-based] Pro Tools yet, just because I’m holding out. And I’m just not a very computer-y person, even though I admire and appreciate it a great deal. Because it’s amazing the stuff it can do — technology. But I haven’t moved on yet. I’m still a young dinosaur.
But it’s just a space I go in, sit there and write my stories. That’s what they are, you know. Just stories. … But I’m hoping that somebody, when they hear ‘em, can hear their own story in my story. And that’s a good goal, to share it. Share what I’m writing, which is very personal all the time, because I don’t know how to do anything else, and share it with you. And you can find your story in mine. I think that’s what music’s about.
It makes sense that you’d create a comfortable, intimate setting for your music-making since you’ve sort of undergone a process of reclaiming it for yourself and now even releasing it yourself.
I think that that’s what every artist should do. I mean, there’s difference in what I do and what, say, I guess a mainstream artist would do. They’re in the mainstream, whatever that is. It’s different because I’m not trying to make hits. I want to make timeless little pieces of my own little personal art to share. And that’s about it. It ain’t special, and it ain’t any kind of monumental literature. But it’s something I want to share.
Revelation Road reminded me of that distinctive narrative, Southern groove pop thing you do as well as anyone. So I’d like to talk about how you developed those sensibilities, especially in your singing. You did some really formidable singing back when you were making country records in Nashville.
When I first came to town it was like, “If you’ve got a big voice, you oughta use every bit of it.” And that’s not necessarily what I believe today. So you can see how my style has changed through the years, and I think it’s not as much a style thing as it is a finding-my-voice thing or a way to communicate with the listener through more peaceful tones.
That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s difficult for me to listen to those records. I don’t listen to those records. I’m associated with them, but as an 18-year-old, you don’t know [anything]. The end. So it took me a few years to find out where I was going and who the hell I was, what kind of music I wanted to make and realize the importance of leaving a catalog of listenable records. And that includes records that I can listen to. (chuckles)
Do you remember what it felt like singing in that way back then, as opposed to the way you sing now?
Oh, yeah. It’s kinda like having a loaded machine gun in your hand, and it just goes off, instead of taking a 12-gauge bird gun and aiming and shooting where you want it to go, if that makes any sense. I remember going in the studio with Billy Sherrill and just standing behind a microphone and doing what I do, which is open my mouth and sing. And I didn’t know anything else.
Did you do much performing in arenas at that time where you’d have to think about reaching the people all the way in the back?
When I first started out, I was opening shows for Randy Travis. He was filling the arenas then. I had the great opportunity to go out and open for him. I’m singing in arenas. I’m 21 years old. So I just thought, “Well, hell, I can fill this [place] up. Turn it up!” So, yeah.
See, I didn’t write songs then either. It makes a big difference. Tammy [Wynette] wrote from the get-go. I wasn’t really interested because it had never occurred to me to be anything but a singer. So when I started writing, I kind of understood what the tenderness meant that was falling out of me when I wrote the tunes.
How did you experience that change between your Nashville country albums and the very different sort of albums you made from I Am Shelby Lynne on? What were you focusing on to make that transition?
Well, the songwriting. Songwriting changed everything. And also my desire to move to California. And at that time, I wanted to work with [producer] Bill Bottrell, who was in California. If he’d have been here, I’d have worked with him here. But he was out there, so I went out there. You see what I’m saying? Everybody’s like, “Oh, you left Nashville.” No, I went where I needed to go to do what I needed to do. When he and I started writing the songs together, the voice suited the songs. And I knew I just wanted to break away from all that belting. I wanted to approach my music in more of a folky style and down-home. Lyric-oriented material is what turns me on.
Did it feel like you were moving from belting-style expression, where you were trying to put the emotion right there on the surface?
The thing is, it doesn’t matter how loud you sing or how much you fill up the room. If it doesn’t mean anything, it sucks. I wanted to do something that meant something. And sometimes you don’t have to sing loud to do that.
There’s so much more emotional nuance and texture from I Am Shelby Lynne on out. Nowadays your singing tends to be more guarded.
I think that you are analyzing it to death. I’m just singing what I feel. You know what I mean? I know where you’re going, but there’s no secret.
There’s no formula.
No. That’s why I left Nashville. There is a way of doing things here. I didn’t want to do it anymore. See what I mean? It’s not like an abandoning of my love for Nashville. It’s going where I need to go to suit my needs. And it’s almost like having a relationship with the music that I have found. Instead of screaming it out loud, let them decide. I mean, “them” being the listener.
You’ve done some of your most Southern-rooted singing, songwriting and album-making since you’ve been out in California. Did you find it easier to do that, or to get perspective on your Southern roots, being geographically removed?
I think the music’s in you, and it’s gonna come out wherever I am. It just soothes my soul to be where I am right now. I mean, I can write just as depressing [stuff] in the sunshine as I can if it rains. [laughs] I love the sunshine, but I’m a rain lover, too.