Shelby Lynne isn’t having your fancy ink pens and computer keyboards. When she writes a song, she uses a No. 2 pencil.
“It’s a habit,” she says. “Maybe I’m a little afraid to move on from what’s been working. I get up every morning and write, just to make sure I remember how to do it.”
Whether it’s an old pencil or an even older guitar, Lynne prefers creative tools with some history to them, which she insists comes through in her songs. As she says, it’s been working for her. She has spent the last quarter-century as an underdog in the industry, releasing a string of strong country albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s before winning a best new artist Grammy in 2000 for her sixth full-length project, I Am Shelby Lynne.
Twenty-five years is a long time for any artist, and Lynne knows it. Her new EP, simply titled Thanks, expresses her gratitude to God and fans through five new country-gospel tunes that don’t sound new at all.
CMT Edge: Have you been listening to a lot of gospel lately?
Lynne: Not necessarily. I’ve always listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, and I always liked old-timey gospel music. So it’s always been one of my many listening pleasures. I can listen to different stuff at different periods of my life. I can listen to Mahalia and get inspired and focus on writing tunes like that, which is what I did last year. I had written these songs, and I thought now’s just as good a time as any to put out a little record of songs expressing my gratitude.
Are you thinking about genre when you’re writing? Do you sit down and think, “OK, I’m going to write a country-gospel song now”?
I don’t think so. I’ve made every kind of record you can make, so I don’t think that there’s any particular thing I think about when I think about writing music. I’m always writing every kind of thing. I don’t care what kind of song it is. I just write. These tunes just presented themselves in the gospel vein, so I thought there might be something here.
But I don’t like to put too much thought into it. We just got together and cut ‘em. The way I produced this record was really no frills — just everybody getting together and getting that old-timey feel, like they’re in an old church. It’s acoustic, back-porch gospel music. You can still hear a little moonshine in there, which is good because it gives it a little kick.
Sometimes the best gospel is as close to sin as it is to salvation.
I guess it could be as complicated as you want to make it, as far as gospel and inspiration and just feeling these things. When I sing gospel music, it’s the easiest thing in the world because I know in my heart, whether or not I’m trying to do it, the spirit just takes over.
Whether you know it or not, gospel is a celebration of life and a celebration of whatever God chooses to be in our hearts. We reach out for that faith individually. It’s not about being in church. Each individual has a relationship with whatever God is. That’s our inner celebration.
Is that where the theme of gratitude comes from on this record?
I’m so fortunate to be able to sing for a living. I’ve been given a voice to sing, and my job here is to make people happy. I’m proud to be able to do that. I always take it seriously. And I want it to be good. I want people to come back to this music over and over and be moved by it. I get so much joy from that, and I want to spread it around. There have been people who’ve stuck with me since 1988. That’s a long time to last in the record business without having a big hit. I’m very, very grateful for that.
You mentioned you wanted to create the vibe of an old church in the studio. What were these sessions like?
You walk in and it’s all about the music and the bodies in the room. It’s not about machines and computers. It’s not about perfection and everybody hitting every note just right. It’s about bodies and motion and inspiration. The songs will guide us, and we’re just along for the ride. That’s pretty much how it happened. Usually the guys like to get together and rehearse everything to death. I’m just the opposite.
On “Call Me Up,” you’re using a very particular guitar that you bought in Tucson, Ariz. You have said you named it Stella. Why was that guitar a good fit for that song?
Because it was built in the ‘20s, and it has that gutbucket sound. As the rhythm player in the group, I set the pace. I set the groove. And I liked the way that guitar sounded with this old-timey gospel stuff. It’s just an old Sears & Roebuck guitar. The brand is Stella, so that’s what I call her. She’s got some years on her. You can’t deny that that matters. To me it does.
When I write songs, I pick up a guitar that I think might lend itself to a particular vibe. I’m lucky because I have more than one writing guitar. That’s one of my addictions, I guess. I’ve got some fancy guitars and some really old guitars, and each one will say, “Hey, come over here and pick me up.” And when you hold an old guitar like Stella and when she’s working for you, you have to give her credit.
So you can hear the history in the instrument?
I can. I’m just an ol’ nostalgia-filled, music-loving, crazy fool. It matters to me, all those little elements. I would much rather talk about my Stella guitar than ProTools. You see what I mean? That shit doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in making the kind of record that if they find in a time capsule or dig up out of the ground in a hundred years, they’ll go, “Hey, that’s pretty good. It stands up!”