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Nashville Scene High Cotton

Shelby Lynne gets back to her roots--and makes the record she's always had in her

By Bill Friskics-Warren

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  "Where I'm From," the sultry centerpiece of Shelby Lynne's new album, I Am Shelby Lynne, is an unabashed Southern pastiche. Sumptuous strings conjure Stephen Foster's minstrel reveries; weary fingers pick at the sticky guitar-lick from Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe"; Lynne's magnolia drawl oozes the intimacy of Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Nodding to crickets and crab-traps as she floats down the Gulf-bound Tombigbee River, Lynne could easily pass for Huck Finn's distant cousin as she purrs, "All I'm trying to say/Is I'm never far away/From an Alabama frame of mind."

Would that this had been the case 11 years ago when Lynne, who grew up in a timber-rich backwater outside Mobile, moved to Nashville to pursue a career as a country singer. But instead of abandoning herself to the greasy mix of hillbilly music and R&B she sopped up as a kid, she succumbed to the sway of her Music Row producers, all of whom (except Billy Sherrill) saddled her big-as-all-outdoors pipes with middle-of-the-road pap. Doubtless desperate to distinguish herself, Lynne then made a swing album that found her oversinging to beat the band; she followed that up with another stab at suburban twang that proved to be her last Nashville gasp.

Ironically, Lynne had to go to New York and L.A. to make the country-soul record she's always had in her. And from its knowing arrangements to Lynne's newfound songwriting voice and vocal finesse, I Am Shelby Lynne is a down-home tour de force. It also constitutes one of the more stunning musical turnabouts in recent memory.

The records made during the '60s and '70s at Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios and at Hi and American in Memphis are the obvious touchstones here: Aretha's churchy surges, Teenie Hodges' snaky guitar lines, the desire-drenched strings of Dusty in Memphis. Smatterings of Brazilian pop (the bossa vibe of "Dreamsome") and Exile-era Stones (the dissolute rattletrap of "Why Can't You Be?") are evident as well.

But Lynne's album isn't as retro as these references might suggest. Drum machines and post-feminist lyrics give the proceedings a contemporary edge, in contrast to Mandy Barnett's elegant old-school knock-offs. Among other things, Lynne and producer Bill Bottrell appear to have been listening to such beat-wise modern-rock acts as Beck, Beth Orton, and Everything But the Girl. But ultimately, the music here--humid, headstrong, incontrovertibly Southern--is Lynne's birthright, and she exults in it. "Jubilation risin' on the bayou," she sings at one point. "Celebration in the wind."

Elsewhere, Lynne's tone is brooding and bruised. "Your lies won't leave me alone/Tore the phone out the wall and it's still ringin'," she wails on "Your Lies," swept up in a Spectorian whirl as a funky guitar ostinato jabs away underneath. But Lynne never resigns herself to the blues. On "Why Can't You Be?" she chides a gloomy hipster--or perhaps herself--for being her own worst enemy. On the half-baked rap "Life is Hard," she pulls herself out of the mire: "Saddle slobbering beast trouble is abound/Ride the devil's bronco never hit the ground."

Lynne's pluck is all the more remarkable when you consider the trouble she's seen, notably her train-wreck of a career (which, admittedly, she's derailed at times) and the violent deaths of her parents. But Lynne has always been a scrapper. And here, she doesn't just tap music that was coming out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals around the time she was born (1968)--she taps the gritty spirit that sparked those records.

"Southern soul spoke to the burdens of life and the need to reach for something higher," writes cultural historian Craig Werner in A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. Lynne's pop debut embraces this impulse with a vengeance. The ethic of resistance and hunger for transcendence that Werner describes certainly inform I Am Shelby Lynne: She seems to have put her bitter Nashville years behind her and found a "room of her own."

Indeed, several of the break-up songs on the album could function as Music Row kiss-offs. "I know it's going to be hard on you/Once it really hits you that I'm gone," she sings on "Leavin'." Others, such as "Where I'm From," find Lynne reveling in the roots--and especially the music--of her raising. "I know it might sound kinda simple," she coos. "Oh but it's mine, oh it's mine."

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