Shelby Lynne plucks the first notes we hear on her new album, “Revelation Road,” from a mandolin. She had never played one before.
She plays and sings every note on the album, and she’ll play solo on Friday at The Egg. But even more impressive than the nerve it takes to perform on instruments she’d never played before is the emotional courage she displays in confronting her demons in words.
As bravely open as Rodney Crowell’s epic “The Houston Kid,” another tale of a family flying apart, Lynne’s “Revelation Road” tells the deep emotional truth of an even more harrowing tale. Her parents’ death in a murder-suicide cast Lynne, at 17, as first the protector of younger sister Allison Moorer and then an exceptionally powerful artist. (Lynne was born Shelby Lynne Moorer in 1968 and raised in rural Alabama by relatives after her parents’ deaths.)
Within a year, Lynne was married, headed to Nashville and recording with producer Billy Sherrill, who crafted Tammy Wynette’s hits, and singing a duet with George Jones, who praised her precocious ability to own a lyric.
Highs and lows
Ups and downs followed. Record labels dropped her, and vice versa. So she started her own label and produced and played everything on “Revelation Road.”
These events etched Lynne as a tough cookie, with scars. A sort of Southern Gothic offspring of Eudora Welty and Frank Sinatra, she’s a wounded warrior of love who can only be seen clearly when the love comes through.
“I wrote about my childhood a lot,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of the new album. “I think you get to a time in your life when you’re at a peaceful enough place to really go back and honestly look at things in a loving way, as opposed to not being ready yet or being there with too much sadness and anger.” Those emotions powered her 12 earlier albums — her Dusty Springfield tribute and a Christmas album less than the others. But, as she told the Post-Dispatch, “I’m at peace with my demons and feel free to work it out.”
She’s free to express the love now, mainly through devotion to her sister, a feeling that is warmly enveloping to anyone hearing it. In the lullabye-promise “I’ll Hold Your Head,” she urges that they close the door on sounds of their parents’ strife, and in the album’s last song “I Won’t Leave You,” she promises even more.
Brave, not bitter, Lynne can now accept the good parts of her childhood, including first learning about music from her parents. “When I was a baby child, say 7 or so, I accompanied myself with Mama’s baritone uke,” she told me by email. “I wanted to play guitar but I was too little to wrap my hands around it, so Daddy taught me some half chords.”
Asked about her early performing experience, she said, “My little Sissy [sister Allison] and I sang at fiddlers’ conventions which were the first audiences we sang in front of. I remember singing at school for assemblies and such, but I was not taught music. Mama tried to force me to take piano lessons one time, but it was too boring; I quit.”
She wanted to craft her own songs as well as to sing. “I wanted to write like my Daddy, who fooled around with writing a bit in college,” she said. “But, then I moved on to like Chuck Berry, Willie [Nelson] and [Kris] Kristofferson.”
Emerging from these giant shadows took time as the Nashville music machine pushed her toward such tried-and-true formulas as the western-swing of “Temptation.” However, she had convincingly grown into her full artistic voice with “I Am Shelby Lynne,” which won her the Best New Artist Grammy in 2000 — after five previous albums and more than a dozen years’ making music, she wryly noted at the time.
She has said of “I Am Shelby Lynne” that the album “came from the most vulnerable, desperate place;” and in a publicist’s Q & A about the album “Revelation Road,” Lynne said it “came out of necessity — it had to happen in order for me to move on.”
This powerful artistic imperative doesn’t deal well with compromise, and Lynne is famously self-directed. “I mainly started my own label so I could have the creative freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted and how I wanted,” she said by email. She recorded on analog gear to 2-inch tape and performed everything including instruments she’d never played before: mandolin, banjo, drums, congas and percussion.
“I just incorporated living into the use of playing the instruments for this record,” she said. “I am not great at any of it,” she acknowledged, and it’s clear, listening to the parts, that she arranged the instruments in service to her words. Yet little gemlike flourishes pop up just often enough to remind a listener how long she’s been making music. “I just did it to get the job done and have a good time,” she said.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook in Squeeze — those guys all had each other to edit and veto bad ideas and suggest good ones. She said she had collaborated with producers and band members in the past and felt herself in partnership with them. She acknowledged: “I learned from all of the wonderful producers I have worked with in the past.”
Then she added: “But I learned most of what I used to make this album from my own experiences in the studio, trial and error.” She made “Revelation Road” alone, but her taste is unerring; her emotional aim is true in the writing and the performances. The vocals are remarkable: She’s her own chorus. In some songs, her voice blends with itself in gentle harmonies. But in the title track, her mission statement outlining the need to reveal herself, it boomerangs back and forth as fiercely as an R & B betrayal song. Her several voices exhort each other to be honest and strong in delivering the emotions she has sung obliquely before this.
Now, it’s direct; now it’s unflinching. And it’s exceptional.
Shelby Lynne will perform a solo, acoustic concert at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) on Friday p.m. Tickets are $28. Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.
Well, what do you know?
So, I was driving into the parking garage under The Egg to see Shelby Lynne the last time she played here, and I spotted a guy walking a chihuahua on a leash. I stopped and called out, “Hey, is that Mouse?” Startled, he stopped dead in his tracks. I explained that I wrote about music and I was there to review the show. I said I had done a phone interview with Shelby, and I had asked her about the vehicle and the dog in the photos on her album cover at the time. She said it was a Ford F-150 pickup and the dog was named Mouse. The guy replied that, yeah, the dog was Mouse.
So, then I asked him if he was with Shelby’s tour or with The Egg. He said, “I’m Charlie, the bass player.” I asked, “Are you Charlie Chadwick?” And he was even more surprised this time. I’d recognized him from playing in my brother Jim’s band at his son Austin’s bar mitzvah in Nashville. In fact, I had sung with the band as part of the festivities. My son Zak and I sang “Midnight in Moscow” in Russian together as the band swung it hard, Dixieland-style; and we had trouble keeping up as they galloped through it.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.