For “Revelation Road,” her most recent album, Shelby Lynne, a writer who has long stared at the harsh realities of her life, delved even deeper.
“I wrote about things I’ve never written about before in a deeply personal way,” she says. “It was time for these songs to come to be. When the muse comes, you just kind of hold the pen. If you do it right, it just kind of goes right through you. I honestly think that’s why I’m here. “
“I get really excited holding pen and guitar in hand and when I see this is something deep (I’m writing), I’m digging it. I’m not afraid of highly emotional content,” Lynne says with typical directness. “I think that’s what we need in the music world. I’m not going to sit around a write ditties. I write some shit that’s powerful. My job is to create art and stir people’s emotions, including my own. I get excited when something is heavy.”
The album, the third on her label, Everso, is largely Lynne and her guitar, putting her personal life on the line going back to her days growing up in Alabama with her younger sister, the songwriter Allison Moorer (Steve Earle’s wife). On “I Want To Go Back,” she writes:
Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long
Is it just what I’m used to
Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive
Oh and every time I pick up my guitar
Aw the sweet chord and memory
I just add to the collection of my broken dreams
And I want to go back so I can run away again.
Lynne also wrote about her family’s tragedy. Her father was a sometimes English teacher and sometimes juvenile corrections officer who played guitar and famously introduced her to Willie Nelson’s outlaw country. But he drank heavily and was an abusive husband. At 5 a.m. on Aug. 12, 1986 outside their rural Alabama house, he shot her mother and then turned the gun on himself. Lynne and Moorer were inside and came out to find their parents dead.
Twenty five years later, in the summer of 2011, Lynne sat down and wrote “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road.”
Can’t blame the whiskey or my Mammy’s ways
Two little girls are better off this way
She prefers not to talk about the songs, instead letting listeners take away their impressions unprompted. “The content of the record happened because something told me it was time for it to happen,” she says. “I’ll let the listener sum it up the way they want to. I really would like the songs to do the talking.”
Lynne will headline the Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival with a show at The Naro Cinema on April 5. She’ll be performing solo on this tour for the first time in her career. The lack of a cozy band of pickers surrounding her seems to suit her these days. “I’m really enjoying the lone wolf thing,” she says. “I love being one-on-one with the folks.”
Lynne likes to say she’s a spontaneous person who relies on her instinct again and again, melding her present life as a songwriter living in the California desert with her past in Alabama and then Nashville, “I like to absorb the atmosphere around me and experience it with an open mind and take from the past as well. Hopefully, something poetic comes out of it,” she adds. “I go back to that instinct, that feeling you get in your head. You have to be strong.”
“I think you know in your heart when things are right, whether in life or making a record,” she explains. “”I think we have to rely on our instinct. I certainly have survived and lived my life as an instinctual person.”
For “Revelation Road,” she had a few new songs, then wrote more when she started recording. “The songs came day and night. They started fitting together like a puzzle. There’s no rhyme or reason for any of it. It just kind of comes together and the universe pulls it in and says this is a piece of work. I let it happen without trying to over-analyze it or think too much about it,” Lynne says.
While Lynne has rocked hard in the past, her recent albums have been quieter singer/songwriter efforts. “I’m much more excited about songwriting and great songs and lyrics and the content of the material than a guitar sound,” she says. “I love all that rocking stuff, but I’m not sure right now it fits into what I’m writing. I want to write songs that make people think and feel something. That’s what I’m into now.”
Ask a question and you get that kind of direct answer from Lynne again and again. That directness has marked her songwriting and her career. She’s kicked more than a couple of record companies to the curb, leaving Lost Highway after her disc covering most of the songs on Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” album. The record company wanted her to sign a big-name producer to record what would become “Tears, Lies, and Alibis,” the first album on her label. She told them to forget and set out on her own. “I haven’t had any surprises except how easy it’s been,” she says of going it alone, as so many artists are. “If you hire the right people who know what they’re doing and who believe in the work I’m doing, it’s smooth sailing. I’ve enjoyed this whole independence the last three years. It’s almost like starting over in a way. It’s great freedom.”
Her freedom has been hard won. She moved to Nashville when she was 20, sold some songs, and landed a deal with CBS. She recorded four albums, bucking against the system. In 1991, she won the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Female Vocalist award. She fled Nashville with two suitcases, settling in California and getting Bill Bottrell, who produced Sheryl Crow’s debut, helped her craft “I Am Shelby Lynne,” a powerful meditation on love and loss that earned a slot on many best-of lists. It eventually won Lynne a Grammy for Best New Artist. “Thirteen years and six albums to get here,” she sarcastically jabbed on stage.
But the album didn’t get the post-Grammy boost. She went on to record one album for Island and two fine albums, “Identity Crisis” and “Suit Yourself,” for Capitol before signing with Lost Highway and issuing the Springfield project.
Lynne has lived in California for more than a decade, but she’s never left the South. “You allow your soul to tell you where it needs to be,” she says. “I just love California. It has everything in the world you could want. But I’m a Southerner in my soul forever and ever. I take the South wherever I go.”
In some ways, she thinks living in California only serves to highlight her upbringing into sharper relief, like red bows on black velvet, she says.
“My past is my past,” she says. “All of us, if we can learn to accept and appreciate our past, bad or good, and make peace with all of the things that may have been dark, you finally can get to place where your heart allows you to create. That’s what happened to me.
“I’m so grateful for all of the experiences in my life. I’m grateful for every damn record company and every bump along the way. I look at where I am and I cant imagine it could be any more perfect. I’m singing a catalog of songs I’ve written and I know it’s where I’m supposed to be.”