Singer Shelby Lynne turns 50 years old today, and in her half-century has done more living than most can even imagine in twice that time. Since her October 1987 debut on the Nashville Network, Lynne has confidently covered an expanse of musical ground reserved for only the most expressive and eclectic song stylists. Born Shelby Lynn Moorer in Quantico, Virginia, and raised in tiny Frankville, Alabama, Lynne was just four years old when her father propped her up on a table to sing “You Are My Sunshine” for the patrons in a local pizza parlor.
Although her childhood alongside younger sister and future fellow artist Allison Moorer was steeped in the music both her parents played and sang, it was also an existence mired in solitude, abuse and, ultimately, unspeakable tragedy with the death of both parents by her father’s hand when Lynne was 17 and Moorer was 14. Moving in with their grandmother expanded the scope of Lynne’s musical exploration, but rebellion, wanderlust — and a short-lived marriage — precipitated her move to Nashville at 18. Singing on demos in Mobile, Alabama, brought Lynne to the attention of Music City songwriter-producer Bob Tubert, who passed her tape on to a contact at TNN. One day after the virtually unknown performer did a guest spot on the popular Ralph Emery series, Nashville Now, Lynne was offered deals with four major Nashville labels and also got a call from legendary songwriter-producer Billy Sherrill.
Signed with Epic Records, Lynne was just 19 when she first hit the charts in September 1988 with a duet that teamed her with labelmate George Jones. Penned by songwriting giants Paul Overstreet and Dean Dillon, “If I Could Bottle This Up” failed to crack country’s Top Forty but earned Lynne early praise not only from Jones but from other legends including Reba McEntire. Her debut LP, Sunrise, appeared in September 1989, with Sherrill producing half the cuts and another iconic songwriter-producer, Bob Montgomery, handling the other half.
Lynne, who has since taken up residence in California, retains a rebel spirit that extends to her plainspoken opinions on a wide range of subjects and now looks back at much of her time in Music City, especially in the recording studio, with disdain. “I have dreadful memories from my early Nashville days of record producers telling me to sing a song over and over and over,” she told Rolling Stone Country in 2015. So, before the fucking record came out, I hated the song… 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.”
Lynne’s diverse career since her debut includes not only a spectacular Dusty Springfield tribute disc, but also a long overdue Best New Artist Grammy in 2001 and a recent LP of duets with her sister. She has also taken on a handful of acting roles, including playing Johnny Cash’s mother in Walk the Line, and along the way made various forays into swing, blues and rock, all the while doing some deeply affecting and confessional songwriting.
Still, there’s perhaps no finer example of Lynne’s emulation of singers whose hearts and souls are lodged deep within their vocal chords than the above clip from a 1990 Nashville Now appearance. Most singers would be afraid to touch the 1980 George Jones classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but as Lynne’s diverse discography suggests, the wholly unexpected is one of her specialties. Sacred and soulful, it’s an utterly breathtaking performance.
Allison Moorer posted a sweet birthday tribute to her sister in her online journal Monday, which reads in part, “Mama said she caught her getting me out of my crib when I was just a tiny baby. I don’t know what her plans were, but I’ll bet they were fun and involved listening to Willie Nelson or Miles Davis while driving fast and laughing… She is the bravest person I know. She taught me how to ride a bicycle, how to make cinnamon rolls, how to fish, how to drive, how to smoke a cigarette, how to sing, and how to dream big dreams… Happiest of birthdays to the shining light that is my sister, Shelby Lynn Moorer.”