"There's too many ways to steal music. The only way to make a living in this business is to go on the road." Shelby Lynne's soft drawl betrays her Alabama roots and suggests an easy demeanor. Don't be fooled. Whether the subject is personal or professional, Lynne articulates the no-nonsense attitude of an artist who is in control after decades of frustration.
Notoriously private about her personal life, Lynne is finally opening up about her youth through songwriting. A natural singer from a young age, Lynne grew up in a family that had music in its DNA: Both parents and younger sister Allison Moorer (wife of Steve Earle) sang and performed together. As a teenager, she watched her father murder her mother and then kill himself. Marrying at age 18 got her a ticket out of backwater Alabama, and she moved to Nashville in '87 looking to start a career she always knew she was destined for.
This history is revisited in Lynne's latest release, 2011's Revelation Road. The songs address the tragedy her father inflicted on the family, but she doesn't feel the album was intentionally cathartic. "I don't know why people think this is a psychological thing for me," Lynne says of the song cycle. "I'm not trying to doctor myself; I'm just writing what I know, putting stories to music."
Shelby Lynne appears Friday, January 27, at the Kessler Theater.
Beyond writing the songs, Lynne recorded and played all the instruments on the record. She has always been a more-than-competent guitarist, having first started playing at age 7, but fleshing out the songs with all the accompanying instrumentation was a satisfying challenge, even if some seem a little thin for the listener.
She may be revealing a little bit more about her life, but the curtain can come down fast and hard if an interviewer strays in an unwanted direction. Ask if she and Allison ever get together to — and you'll get an immediate "No" before you even finish the question."No, we don't get together, and we don't discuss each other either," she says, clearly the last word on the subject. An interesting take, given the two of them toured and performed together for the first time in 2010.
In recent years Lynne has indirectly acknowledged being gay, although she has refused to come out on record. As was long the case with her family history, she simply refuses to allow herself to be defined by convenient labels or circumstances.
When the subject shifts to her struggles with the recording industry, however, she readily opens up. Never really fitting neatly into the Nashville system, she relocated to California in 1998, after four country-oriented albums. Recorded in Los Angeles and released in 2000, I Am Shelby Lynne was a big step toward reinvention. She won the Grammy for Best New Artist that year, but the music industry's beat-down, combined with what she views as musically bankrupt executives, fueled a long struggle to find stability at a good label.
In 2008 she released her critically praised album of songs originally made famous by Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin', which was a source of her frustration. "I was on Capitol and they were about to close their doors and drop me," explains Lynne. "I had to take them a concept that took the requirement to think out of the equation."
Timeless songs made famous by another elusive and iconic singer was a good pitch. Unfortunately, by the time the album was ready for release, the label had indeed shut its doors and cut her loose. Lynne shopped the album herself and got a one-record deal to release it on the Lost Highway label.
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After that fiasco, Lynne formed her own Everso Records label and released her last three albums. It's not that involvement in the business side of the industry gives her pleasure, but there's clearly satisfaction that comes with control. "No, I'm the boss and I get people to run it," she laughs. "Nobody second guesses. Nobody says anything, because I just give it to them and say, 'Here, this is the way it is, put it out.'"
And for this tour, Lynne is doing it all herself, just voice and guitar. Does she miss the camaraderie of a band, musical or otherwise?
"I don't miss having sidemen," she declares. "I've never had more fun in my life touring." That she is going it alone, doing what she has to do to make a living in this business, does not seem like a such a revelation.
"I'm not trying to doctor myself; I'm just writing what I know, putting stories to music."