You’d be hard-pressed to find a more independent artist than Shelby Lynne. After winning the approval of the music establishment in the form of Grammy and Academy of Country Music Awards, Lynne — who visits Dallas tomorrow night for a performance at Dallas City Performance Hall — followed her own path, for better or worse. After releasing the iconic I Am Shelby Lynne in 1999, the artist moved in 1,000 different creative directions, some better than others, but all contributing to an artistic outlook unlike any other.
Pop success was clearly not what Lynne wanted. After the unanticipated success of her breakthrough album (her sixth recording), she made a lot of interesting, sometimes contradictory choices. In 2008, she recorded an incredible (and well-received) tribute to Dusty Springfield. She formed her own record label, recorded a Christmas album and toured as an indie darling. In 2015, though, Shelby Lynne is at her creative best.
This year’s release of I Can’t Imagine marks her first major-label album in eight years, which came with the highest of expectations. After the release of her first commercially and critically successful record in I Am Shelby Lynne, it was hard to know what to expect. That, ultimately, is much of Lynne’s appeal: a talent that is not limited to genre or style or aesthetic. It is near impossible to peg Lynne into a neat box. She is country, she is Americana, she is bluesy, she is one hell of a vocalist. That has always been true. From one track to the next on I Can’t Imagine, you wind through impressive tributes to her musical influences layered with intensely personal writing.
And yet, despite all this critical acclaim and incredible music, Lynne has never really managed to stay in the mainstream. If you ask most people who consider themselves fans of country music, they’ll probably tell you that they’ve never even heard of Lynne, and that is exactly what is wrong with the current state of this genre. People who “love” country music sure don’t seem to understand what the hell it is.
Right now there seems to be little room in country music for anything deeper than the crick where Luke Bryan catches his catfish, making Lynne a complete outlier. Even if other artists, many of them female, are tackling heavy issues, none come close to the depth and darkness of Lynne’s music. Miranda Lambert is singing about teen pregnancy, sure, but Lynne is lyrically contending with the murder-suicide death of her parents, and that doesn’t exactly play well after “Kick the Dust Up.”
Lynne maintains the authenticity that has always made country music different from other genres. More than that, she continues the genre’s storyteller tradition. Popular country music today is little more than stringing together sexual innuendos and rural references, but Lynne is weaving tales. She is exploring emotions. The results are occasionally tumultuous, but that is what makes it, and country music, so great.
Fans aren’t happy to see the real stories and connection with rural America disappear from country music, especially those who grew up on the good stuff. Any discussion of country music, even among fans, is likely to involve a lot of hate for “bro-country” or “pop-country” or Taylor Swift. And while Bryan and Tim McGraw fill up Gexa Energy Pavilion and rake in millions of dollars, more than 100 tickets remain for Shelby Lynne’s show at the Dallas City Performance Hall on Friday.
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Being invested in making country music better involves little more than committing to listen to better country music. Stop complaining about Bryan and fantasizing about Johnny Cash descending from the heavens on a ring of fire to save us all from Florida-Georgia Line, and find yourself some decent country music.
If those people who complain about Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line are so upset about the current state of the music they claim to love, why is it that artists like Lynne fly so far under the radar? Based on the sheer volume of complaints about mainstream country and the success of artists like Sturgill Simpson, you’d think that I Can’t Imagine would be flying off record store shelves and scalped tickets for Friday night’s performance would be going for twice face value.
But they aren’t, and those who don’t bother to pick up a ticket will sorely regret their decision when the music establishment finally gets its shit together and realizes that Shelby Lynne deserves to be playing much bigger venues. In the past few years, any number of artists have made the ascent from 400-person clubs to massive venues at warp speed, and if history repeats itself, so will Shelby Lynne.