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Crisis Averted 

Stormy singer Shelby Lynne bounces back with an album made her way.

Shelby Lynne made her own kind of album -- and - found a label to love it.
  • Shelby Lynne made her own kind of album -- and found a label to love it.

For someone of so silken a voice, Shelby Lynne can turn testy pretty damn quick. Her publicist has persuaded her to dole out 20 minutes for a phone interview from her home in Palm Springs, California, and Lynne responds to softball questions with practiced poise. No problem when it comes to discussing Identity Crisis, her latest "breakthrough" and the album she's touring behind.

But when the topic turns to Love, Shelby, the 2001 pop confection produced by Alanis Morissette-sound-shaper Glen Ballard, she becomes defensive -- even snappish. Love, Shelby isn't a very good album, and it sold only 85,000 copies -- far fewer than the 237,000 notched by 2000's I Am Shelby Lynne, her high-water mark and bestseller. In 2002, Lynne found herself banished by Island Records and with time on her hands.

None of these developments taint her rear-view of Love, Shelby, an album with which she remains satisfied.

"Why shouldn't I be?" the temperamental singer says emphatically. "I run into this question in every interview I do. I find myself speaking up for that record so much -- I don't understand it. Every record by an artist should not be a copycat record of the last. I don't understand why an artist shouldn't explore other avenues sometimes.

"I didn't make that record because people were tying me down in a room," she snorts. "I wish I could just shout that, all over the world."

Lynne has never kowtowed to fashion or flattery. At the same time, despite the apparent candor of her lyrics, she seems guarded, her private life like a gated community. There are reasons. The sister of country singer Allison Moorer, Shelby Lynne Moorer is no stranger to tragedy: When Lynne was 17, her father, a violent alcoholic, fatally shot his wife in the driveway of their family home, then turned the gun on himself. Shortly thereafter, she left Alabama for Nashville, where she laid down some demos and ultimately wound up recording for Epic. Over the years, she has scored deals with numerous labels, including Morgan Creek, Magnatone, Island, and now Capitol. She has traversed a variety of styles, and she recharges and reinvents herself with ease.

In a sense, Lynne is a holdover from the old, pre-countrypolitan Nashville, where she cut her first album in 1989 for Tammy Wynette and George Jones's producer, Billy Sherrill, a man known for his lush touch. While her Epic albums won critical acclaim, they didn't notch spectacular sales, and Lynne's intransigence didn't win her diplomatic kudos. She became as known for volatility as for talent.

But now, she says, she's on track. The title of Identity Crisis -- an album that spans the high-strung rockabilly of "I'm Alive," the Patsy Cline-channeling "Lonesome," and the rueful pop of the first single, "Telephone" -- may seem like a misnomer; the album is assured and consistent despite its variety. But even here, Lynne occupies the same dark place that she's gone to on her previous albums. Take the lyrics to "Telephone": "I've looked in faces that just looked away/Their eyes were dim and clouded (can't see a thing)/The pain of living with the hand that's dealt is more than I can stand."

To hear Lynne tell it, the album's title and contents came naturally. Of course, "naturally" is the buzzword Lynne's former label used to market her in 2000, when she won the Best New Artist Grammy for I Am Shelby Lynne, a Bill Bottrell-produced album that many considered her true breakthrough. Perhaps the question is, how often can one person break through? And to what end?

Lynne dismisses the notion altogether, adding that she's achieved a kind of peace, where success doesn't matter as much as it once did. She's happy rediscovering a sense of family -- "I think it's the most important thing," she says, "and you can get caught up in a world where you realize this is not your focus. We have to do what we do for a living, but I realize how lucky I am to have a grandmother and a 90-year-old grandfather, and they're still here."

With no children of her own, Lynne says her career is her family. She's devoting her attention to the estimable Identity Crisis, an album that sprang from her subconscious. There's no process, she says, and if there's discipline, she keeps its secrets to herself.

"If I have something in my mind and have somewhere to go with it, I try to spend a little time with it, and if it happens, it happens," she says. Lynne wrote about 20 songs for Crisis, jettisoning eight for the "ones I thought were the best, the ones I really felt I wanted to complete, production-wise.

"I was without a label, so there was no money, and I paid for the record out of my pocket and my manager's," she says. "The more I started doing the record, the more appealing not having a label involved became. I don't believe I could have made this record with a label, because it's definitely not a commercial record. It would have been much more difficult to make with a label; I certainly could not have made it with the one I was with."

Why sign with Capitol? "I played this record for a lot of people," she say. "I was perfectly happy to live with the fact that I wasn't going to have a record deal and maybe do something independent. I was really gun-shy about doing the big corporate thing, but when I met with Capitol, I didn't have that feeling. I was shocked. I thought record labels, they all suck. That's not true."

Lynne is playing bass and guitar on the two-month tour that runs through November. She's also writing these days -- a lot. "I love to write," she says. "I don't just write songs. I write all kinds of things, stories and all." She's also considering more recordings, including a soul CD.

"There are so many albums I'd like to do. There are so many kinds of music that I love. I think I could make an album every day. I'd love to."

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