The last time Shelby Lynne entered a studio she did so solo taking the bold decision to record and produce herself, with just an engineer to man the mixing desk and hit record. The result was the stark and deeply personal Revelation Road, an album that packed a real emotional punch in dealing with the tragedy at the heart of Shelby’s life, while also finding room for tenderness, love and even a little happiness amongst the ghosts. It was another twist in what has been an extraordinary career and quite possibly the most important record since her breakout and break away album, I Am Shelby Lynne.
There was perhaps never any doubt that Shelby was destined to be a singer and along with her sister Allison Moorer be drawn into writing songs and making music. She learnt to sing in three part harmony as a child on car journeys with her mother and sister. Her mother was a natural singer and her father a weekend guitarist. Between them, Shelby’s parents had a stack of country records, Beatles, Elvis and so on. Shelby’s early tuition was in finding the harmony to sing along to the likes of the Mills Brothers, Ink Spots, Kay Starr and the Everly Brothers.
She was always bright and an avid reader, but a poor student. Still she took the lyrics of the songs to heart, something that still resonates through her music today. Picking up a guitar at seven years old and learning a basic E major chord sequence from her father, offered the chance to start accompanying herself as she sang and she learned the art of crafting her own songs from there.
The tragedy that unfolded has been well enough documented and you sense that Revelation Road was part of the process of laying some ghosts to rest, cathartic and possibly painful too. Shelby tells me, “It wasn’t difficult, but necessary…I wanted to make a personal record and tell my stories and share them. It had to be made all by me because it was that personal. I needed to be by myself when I did it. It’s not brilliant musicianship but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was a personal art piece for me that I wanted to share with the world, or whoever wanted to listen. I am very proud of it.”
Rightly so. Sure the album may lack some of the obvious panache that the session players can bring to a recording, but Shelby’s more basic style still works a treat and focuses you on the songs and her golden voice, which has always been her winning card anyway.
These latest recordings for her Thanks EP offer further evidence of just what a great singer she is. Recorded in her own studio once more, this time she’s assembled a team of musicians and collaborators to flesh out the sound. Shelby explains, “I had written some Gospel songs in the last two years, decided it was a good thing to share them in between records. My dear friend Maxine Waters and I started the idea last year (she played piano and sang on this EP) then I decided to bring in some other guys to really polish it off. My friend and fellow musician Ben Peeler brought in the guys from LA. We recorded it in my studio in Rancho Mirage…It is not a fancy studio but it gets the job done. If you have good mics and great analogue gear to go along with the pro-tools, you can come up with a pretty good sounding record.”
As well as long-term friend Maxine Waters, Shelby’s newest pal is Stella – a 1920’s acoustic guitar she recently picked up in Tucson. The producer is multi-instrumentalist Ben Peeler who has drafted in Michael Jerome and Ed Maxwell to play on the EP. You can immediately see from the video of the lead out track Call Me Up there’s a chemistry and energy that comes across loud and clear in the recording too. It seems the new quintet was able to work quickly and there’s a real snap to Call Me Up, while the quality shines throughout.
Shelby has always had a soulful edge to her voice and she reveals, “I have my inspirational singers who are favourites but Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were highly influential on this record.” The straight ahead gospel song, Walkin’ is possibly the strongest statement of that influence, but it’s there too in This Road I’m On and the highly charged Thanks.
As good as Revelation Road unquestionably is it’s great to hear what the band can do with Shelby’s songs. The use of Dobro, in the opener, the electric slide or lap steel that drives Forevermore and the pedal steel in Thanks all make their impact. The bass and drums are the most obvious difference, whilst the piano contribution of Maxine Waters should not be underestimated.
Ben Peeler has done a great job on this EP and invests each of Shelby’s songs with something special. Shelby acknowledges this, “I always have control. But it is my choice to bring in certain brilliant people who offer their expertise.” So, it is Shelby who ultimately calls she shots and this is once again released on her own label. She tells me, “Everso had to be set up so I could continue to make records without the major label deal. I was, at the time, especially sick and tired of record companies. They are really for super big acts, established acts who don’t really have to worry about car payment, but there are a couple of companies I might consider working with later on down the line that I could merge with EVERSO… You never know”
I would guess at the root of this is Shelby’s career path, far from straight forward, with its many twist and turns. She mad an almost instant impact when she packed her bags and headed to Nashville pumped full of a burning desire to be a singer. Veteran songwriter Bob Tubert, armed with only a cassette demo in hand, he took a chance and played the tape for the TV producer of the programme Nashville Now hosted by Ralph Emory. It immediately led to a deal by CBS Records with legendary producer Billy Sherrill called out of semi retirement to produce her first record. It included a duet with country legend George Jones, If I Could Bottle This Up, which nestled just outside the Top 40 on the country chart.
Between 89 and 95 she recoded five full albums, but the airbrushed end of the Nashville production line was never going to suit Shelby. Temptation released in 93 following her split from Epic Records, with its mixture of western swing and big band jazz, was surely a sign of much wider ambitions. Although winning some considerable acclaim from the start, her career fell just short of mainstream success and it was another change of direction and the alt-country of I Am Shelby Lynn that really brought her to wider international attention. In the series of albums that followed Shelby had her first try at producing herself with Identity Crisis and Suit Yourself. She also recorded a tribute to Dusty Springfield released by Lost Highway called Just A Little Lovin’.
Everso seems to have energised Shelby with three releases including a Christmas album in quick succession. Revelation Road came out in various formats, expanded with a live set and even a concert DVD of just Shelby and her guitar. It’s been a couple of years since that release and she sounds upbeat telling me, “My immediate plans are to gather the songs I have been writing since Revelation Road came out and I toured, so that’s been a few years. I’ll make a new record, record new songs…The only thing I can promise you content wise is that I WILL be the singer and I will use musicians on this one. The LONE wolf thing I did it, and I am glad, but it is time to move ahead and do something new and exciting!!!!”
The strength of the Thanks EP gives us something to enjoy right now and also suggests that we have something very special to look forward to. As unimaginably painful as some of her life has been, it her resilience that is the narrative thread to hook on to, that and her glorious gift as a singer. If anyone owes a debt of thanks it’s us, so thank you Shelby for these five songs. Whatever comes next will doubtless be gratefully received too.
Review & Interview by: Simon Holland
Out Now via Everso Records
Order: itunes |