After years of unseasonably mild success on the Nashville front, the tempestuous Shelby Lynne turns emotional tumult into a rock record that's blowing critics away


I Am Shelby Lynne

Shelby Lynne is explaining, in a nutshell, why she ditched Nashville and the country-music scene to make her first record geared toward a rock & roll audience. ”I don’t really like anything too confining,” she says, slouching back into a plush couch in a Palm Springs lounge. Glancing down at her trousers, she adds, ”Except for leather.”

Lynne moved to this California resort city a year ago after a short stint back in her home state, Alabama, and a longer one toiling in Tennessee. Through all these sweltering climes, one constant has been those black leather pants. And her proclivity for saunawear isn’t even the most contrary thing about her. Lynne, 31, has a rep for being stubborn, shy, tempestuous, and declining to grin or glad-hand if she doesn’t feel like it — in short, the least suitable temperament for a career in modern country music. ”She would never suffer somebody telling her to be nice and sweet and behave,” laughs her producer, Bill Bottrell, himself curious about how she ever got along in Nashville.

Country’s loss is rock’s considerable gain. I Am Shelby Lynne — her sixth album, though it has the liberating feeling of a debut — came out last fall in Europe, in time to make the English music magazines’ best-of-’99 lists. Bumped to January in the States, this set of Appalachian R&B thus gets the honor here of being the first great album of the new millennium.

The opening ”Your Lies” has the booming drums, majestic strings, and compressed vocals of a great lost ELO track. The effervescent soul of ”Leavin”’ suggests a heretofore unknown Dusty in Memphis outtake. Not till the gutbucket blues of ”Life Is Bad” is she enough of a ringer for Sheryl Crow to remind you that Bottrell did produce Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club. Other tracks inspire other comparisons, mostly of a 1968-73 vintage — ”Gotta Get Back” is Glen Campbell meets Aretha — but the thrill of fresh talent on the vine overrides any retro vibes.

If you sense life experience in that heavily accented voice, well, you have no idea. Between the ages of 17 and 19 alone, Lynne fell on hard times that put even the most exaggerated country lament to shame: She witnessed her father shoot her mother and himself to death; helped raise her younger sister, Allison Moorer (also a singer); got married and divorced; and, in a bright spot, cut her first single, a duet with George Jones. As life settled down in her 20s, a series of Sony LPs produced minor hits and misbegotten hairstyles, and a knack for outshining her material. ”I’ve always had the reputation for having this big voice, and I would always oversing,” she says. ”That’s the Nashville way.”

But for this ”real seat-of-your-ass record,” she started writing songs, turned the volume down on her formerly flawless alto, and cranked up the cracked soul. In a blindfold test, you’d never peg her as the same person. But ”this is not a reinvention. This is an acceptance,” she emphasizes, ”of who I am.”