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.