Whether she's crooning a traditional country tune with George Jones, as on her 1988 single "If I Could Bottle This Up," paying tribute to Dusty Springfield with the glorious Just a Little Lovin' from 2008, or grooving on West Coast-inspired country-rock, as she does throughout the sensational, just-released LP, I Can't Imagine, Shelby Lynne is all about the vibe. That's why it made perfect sense to the singer-songwriter to take a record she started at home in California and finish recording it in the heart of Cajun country, at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana. The result is Lynne's 13th full-length album and her first for Rounder Records, and is yet another dazzling showcase for her emotion-packed vocals and the richly textured storytelling rooted in the Southern tradition of her Alabama upbringing.
"Anytime you go to the South, it just naturally sings something — whether it's mournful or joy," Lynne tells Rolling Stone Country. "There's something about the South that naturally tells its own story. So when you involve your own stories with it, which is the goal, it's a combination of something that's already there and hopefully something to come."
As open as she was to the idea of merging the two musical cultures on record, Lynne always intended to return to the Palm Springs area, where she has lived for nearly two decades, to finish recording. Although what she left behind (and rarely looks back at) was a turbulent upbringing in Alabama, where she and younger sister Allison Moorer (who released her own exceptional album, Down to Believing, in March) endured the horrific shooting death of their mother at the hand of their father. He then killed himself.
Life in the Moorer household up to that point, however, was one that included plenty of music. Raised in tiny Frankville, Alabama, home of the Frankville Old Time Fiddlers Convention for nearly 90 years, Lynne says she began talking and singing at about the same time.
"I was one of those little three year olds that they put up on the piano to sing," she recalls. "When I learned to play the ukulele and make some chords, Daddy put Allison and me in the damn fiddler's conventions, which are basically acoustic talent contests. We won the prize for $25. I learned to play ukulele at about seven or eight, so that would make Allison about four. We were just babies."
While it's safe to assume "child prodigy" is a term that fits both sisters, one thing anyone who has met Lynne, or at least read about her, in the past two-plus decades knows is that also labeling her "outspoken" is putting it mildly — or, as she herself might suggest in her distinctive Southern drawl, "fuckin' mildly." And although she doesn't often relive the past, preferring to "Be in the Now," just as one of the songs on the new album suggests, Lynne does occasionally conjure up particularly strong childhood memories with her intricately detailed, vivid lyrics. "Following You," one of the songs from I Can't Imagine that was penned as a solo effort, is ostensibly about her squirrel hunting adventures as a young girl, accompanied by her father. But at its heart, the chilling, beautiful tune is really a sobering meditation on the complicated relationship Lynne and her father shared within — and beyond — his deeply troubled lifetime.
"I would always walk behind him," she says of those treks through the woods, a shotgun hoisted on her shoulder. "[The song is] like me following him and reading his thoughts and doing everything that I know he wants me to. I'm following him even though he doesn't know where he's going. I'm gonna let him know that I'm gonna be his little girl. I'm gonna do everything I'm supposed to do. But I really know that he's a dumbass [laughs]. When you're the kid that I was and you know that Daddy has his demons. . . once you get to be 11 or 12 and .22 rifle-totin' size, you realize that you're dealing with a human being that has a lot of facets. So you start figuring out this person you admire. That's me thinking about him. . . when I think about him."
Another of the memorable tracks from I Can't Imagine that deals with childhood, and not just Lynne's specifically, is "Down Here," a brooding, bluesy number that incorporates the telling phrase "three-dollar bill," alluding to the simile that begins "queer as a" (without explicitly saying it). It's yet another reminder that the South's relationship with LGBT issues, while having progressed, still has a long way to go. A notoriously private singer, Lynne rarely discusses her life outside of music, but when pressed on the subject, she will say that she has been open to a variety of personal experiences throughout her lifetime, many of which might make a genteel Southerner blush, and also might open her up to cold, harsh judgment from others — if she actually gave a shit about what anyone else thinks.
"Down Here" addresses the turmoil of, in Lynne's words, "my dark Dixie closet," and her prepubescent realization that she wasn't quite like those in her peer group. It's a subject she hasn't tackled quite as directly in her songwriting before, but only because it wasn't time.
"I didn't try to sit down and write it," she explains. "'Down Here' wrote itself, just like most of my songs. I sit down and wait for it to come through my body, and for the pencil to move."
It's crystal clear that having to discuss why "Down Here" is all too timely doesn't exactly thrill her. But, as with most questions asked of her in regard to what inspires her writing particular subjects, once she starts talking, she has plenty to say.
"This is the thing: I believe in equal human rights," she says, drawing out each of those last three words for emphasis. "I am not a political person except in my own private time. I have no agenda except that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect, whether it's race or being homosexual or anything. I just believe everybody should be nice to everybody. It was on my mind, there was something in the news about some Southern family that had thrown out their kid [for being gay], and they got it on tape. I'm so sick of this! How do you dismiss your child because they're different?
"I get to thinking about the South and how I felt when I was a little kid," she continues. "Feeling, 'Wow, I am different. I feel it in my heart, and I know that I don't have anything to do with it. I'm being who I am and what I am.' Immediately, when you know that and you're eight or nine years old, you start going, 'Well, I have to start acting differently. Because it's obvious what I'm feeling is not really acceptable around here.' So you just start being and becoming who you are and hope and make the best of it. By the time you're an adult and you have a voice, an opinion and a way of life that's your own, you have to be secure in the fact of who you are. That's the whole goal with 'Down Here,' it's just saying you're not alone. Because [singing] 'Out in the country, out in the hills, out in the country, there's a three-dollar bill.' And they're everywhere. And I mean they. . . all. . . you. . . me. . . all. So, I'm hoping that song can reach some little Southern child or some Southern person and they can go, 'Goddammit, she feels like I feel.'"
"Down Here" was co-written with and features vocal assistance from one of her first-time collaborators on the LP, Clarence Greenwood. A bluesy, soulful rocker and true son of the South, Greenwood is perhaps better known by his stage name: Citizen Cope.
"Clarence is the everyman," says Lynne. "I'm a huge believer in what Clarence represents, what he does, his music, his vibe, his lyrics. There's something so poetic and musical about his voice. It comes from deeper than the vocal cords. It's something that stretches from a long, long, long, long time ago. I fell in love with his music. I just wanted to see if he would share something with me. I called him and since then we've become good pals. Music opens the great doors to communicate."
Lynne has also cultivated a close relationship with her band, including right-hand man, guitarist and keyboard player Ben Peeler, with whom she collaborated on "Sold the Devil (Sunshine)," a Motown-infused tune about a fearless tête-à-tête with Satan.
"Just imagine standing in front of the devil and he's forced to buy a dash of sunshine from you," she says with a laugh. "I'm ready to take that motherfucker head-on and sell him some sunshine and smile the whole fucking time and say, 'What you gonna do about it, motherfucker?' I'll stand on my tiptoes with the devil. I'm ready. I believe I've probably done it before. He's welcome to stand in my face anytime and I'll sell him some sunshine. That's a good example of letting the song take you where it's going to go. We went in there and cut it once. Two or three of these were just cut once."
Her preference for as few takes as possible, Lynne confesses, stems from her first recordings on a major country label, Epic — a time that was epically dissatisfying as far as her experience in the studio was concerned.
"I have dreadful memories from my early Nashville days of record producers telling me to sing a song over and over and over. So, before the fucking record came out, I hated the song. I don't sing the songs any more than one or two times. If I ain't got it then, then fuck it, I ain't puttin' it on there. I will not be told what to do. I will not be told what to sing, unless I really, really, really trust. In Nashville, they didn't really give a fuck whether I trusted them or not. It was like, 'Here, sing this.' Those times are way gone."
Also featured on I Can't Imagine is multi-instrumentalist Pete Donnelly, whose work with pop-band the Figgs was far removed from Lynne's own experience but with whom she says she instantly clicked. In addition to contributing a co-write on the album's title track, Donnelly and Lynne co-penned the bitterly ironic and captivating "Better," about a woman Lynne says has gone completely off the rails. "She's been out all night, drunk as shit," Lynne explains. "She stopped and fucked somebody on the way home."
Lynne has also added a new member to her family of collaborators: lauded Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who in addition to having recorded more than a dozen acclaimed albums has had his songs covered by Emmylou Harris, Michael Bublé and Rod Stewart, among others. With Lynne, the Juno Award-winning tunesmith penned two of the albums more optimistic, upbeat tracks: "Be in the Now" and "Love Is Strong." The two have previously been featured — separately — on a seemingly unlikely project: an album by pop crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, as well as on a benefit LP.
"All writers love Ron because he's just the shit," Lynne notes. "I wanted to collaborate on this record, and I had Ron in the back of my mind. We kept colliding, musically, but had never met. I cold e-mailed him and said, 'Do you wanna write a song?' He said, 'Yeah, but I'm in Toronto.' I said, 'Great! I'm in Palm Springs, what's your e-mail?' There you go. I've never laid eyes on him."
Although she now runs her own label, Everso Records, Lynne says I Can't Imagine was released on Rounder, quite simply, because they asked for it.
"I got the I Am [Shelby Lynne] and Love, Shelby masters back," she says of the pair of career-defining albums originally released in 1999 and 2001, respectively, the former of which led to a belated Best New Artist Grammy. With Rounder's re-release of a deluxe version of I Am Shelby Lynne came the proposition of releasing fresh music from Lynne, her first full-length LP since 2011's Revelation Road.
"I said, 'Well, I ain't really thought about makin' a new one, but all right.' Everso owns I Am and Love, Shelby. Everso's happenin'. She's alive and kickin', she's just takin' a break. I love Rounder. It's one of the last of a dying breed. They've always kept it fucking true. I wanted a label like Rounder one day. Something that stays consistent, stays classy. There's nothing put out on there that's gonna be out just to make a buck. It's gonna be good-quality shit."
For over 25 years now, Shelby Lynne has built an exceptional career in music out of just that: consistent, good-quality shit.