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The Grammys made a big mistake in 2001 when they gave Shelby Lynne the award for Best New Artist. It wasn’t so much that she was on her sixth album when she got her trophy — although, sure, there was that nagging point — as much as how she really should have taken home Album of the Year. Her declarative musical rebirth, I Am Shelby Lynne, came out less than a month into 2000, and at the time, it may have spoiled us into thinking we were due for a better century than the one actually in store. We still haven’t heard a better album this millennium.
The 15th anniversary of that not-really-a-debut “debut” album is being celebrated with this week’s repackaging of I Am Shelby Lynne, which might count as the reissue of the year. Lynne somehow got back the masters to her two Island releases and handed this one, at least, over to her new label, Rounder, which does it justice with six studio bonus tracks that prove a lot of greatness was left on the cutting room floor, too. Also included is a DVD of a 2000 show at Los Angeles’ House of Blues that seemed to establish her as a cocky, strutting rocker, even though she ultimately took a more acoustic direction. For those of us who were at that HOB show, it would have been hard to surpass, but Lynne came close Wednesday at Largo, one of only two shows (the other at New York’s City Winery) to have her doing a top-to-bottom recreation of I Am Shelby Lynne.
For the most sumptuous female voice in any pop-related genre today, the years have been kind. You wouldn’t necessarily have made a sure bet on that 15 years ago, if only because there was such a palpable ache to the deeply felt material that you could reasonably wonder if someone who made you believe she lived with that much heartache would take good care of her instrument. (For evidence that the connection between recorded lonesomeness and real-life wreckage isn’t always a fallacy, see Amy Winehouse, whose Back to Black is the only serious rival I Am… has as a 21st-century hurts-so-good classic.) It still seems like a freakish miracle that someone who spent her first five years as a straight-up mainstream country artist would have suddenly turned out to be more of a Southern R&B stylist than anything. Teasing out the notes in an irresistible drawl, Lynne has the ability to make you believe her deepest vulnerabilities are just a remembered millimeter from the surface, even as she impresses with a sexy, tough-chick swagger that’s always going to keep a tear ever so barely at bay.
The I Am… album represented the one-time intersection of two great talents, Lynne and producer/co-writer Bill Bottrell, besting the work he’d done even on Sheryl Crow’s estimable Tuesday Night Music Club by a country mile. She brought the soul and he the ability to single out the pop hooks and frame that raw honesty in strings-laden recordings that sounded right out of the Bobbie Gentry/Dusty Springfield era. Whose idea was it that the sublime album opener, “Your Lies,” would start right at the top of a soaring chorus, just like so many of the great mid-‘60s records boldly did? Which of them had the genius to put a smooth-funk guitar on “Thought It Would Be Easier” that made it even more of a bridge-gapper between Dusty’s ethos and Aretha’s? Who knows, but touches like these set up a dynamic that Lynne has continued to mine very effectively for a decade and a half, territory that few other singer/songwriters have the chops to even attempt, although occasionally you’ll find a fellow Southerner like Tift Merritt coming close.
At Largo, the arrangements occasionally seemed a little more country than they did on record. That was mostly due to the band-leading presence of MVP Ben Peeler, who’s best known in the musical community as a lap-steel go-to guy. Peeler also played greater and healthier amounts of pedal steel than Bottrell did 15 years ago, when there was probably a bit more concern about audibly partitioning Lynne from her Nashville past. Even with all that extra-added steel, Lynne’s sound is still so much more black than it is traditional country — and yet still so obviously rooted in the country — that you wish there could just be a bin in the record store marked “Southern.” “I’m a Southern Calibamian,” declared Lynne, who sounds just as Alabamian as she did when she migrated west 15 years ago.
Following the 10-track album, Lynne performed all six bonus tracks, only a couple of which were previously released, on an almost impossible-to-find British CD single. At least three of these would have proudly seemed in place on the original album. “Wind,” she explained, was inspired by living in Mobile Bay and having the boys who’d just gotten off work in the bayou circle around the neighborhood in their cars, offering beer for companionship. She took the beer, anyway, she explained. The easy balminess of the tune vividly suggested the kind of humid breezes that drive the guys crazy and make the girls just relax.
Two other tunes may have ended up seeming too personal to keep on the album. “Miss You Sissy” had Lynne reaching out to her then-estranged sister, fellow singer Allison Moorer. “Do you hurt like I do? Is it hard on you too?” is a question asked not just among siblings but one that Lynne inherently constantly extends to her audience. As for the previously unheard “Sky is Purple,” it turns out that 2011’s Revelation Road was not the first time Lynne addressed their parents’ murder-suicide on a studio recording after all: “Little sissy is crying and she says don’t look,” she sang in this earlier retelling of that tragedy. “Your daddy took your mama like a dime-store crook.” As Lynne herself might put it, in the words of another song of hers: That’s heavy as 10 rocks.
But Wednesday’s Largo show was all about lightness, even if the subject matter of 90 percent of the songs was intrinsically downhearted. A climactic rendition of “Wichita Lineman” found Lynne doing something she doesn’t do often, and that isn’t done in other covers of the song: belting. Jimmy Webb’s classic might have seemed like an odd choice of tune in which to go completely cathartic, but his lyric is more appropriate for her I-am-woman roar than you’d think. Fifteen years after making a break from a compromised musical past and going for the gutsiness, if not gold, Lynne is truly still on the line.
Life is Bad
Thought It Would Be Easier
Gotta Get Back
Why Can’t You Be?
Where I’m From
Black Light Blue
Bless the Fool
She Knows Where She Goes
Miss You Sissy
Sky is Purple
Should Have Been Better
When Johnny Met June
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