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Shelby Lynne - Identity Crisis

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Artist: Shelby Lynne

Album: Identity Crisis

Label: Capitol

Review date: Oct. 24, 2003

American popular music has a long tradition of remarkable artists who slip through the cracks of easy categorization despite deep roots in the soil that nourishes their musical visions. Shelby Lynne’s music is like a map of the rivers and streams that flow through the heart of American music: on her new album, Identity Crisis, country, soul, blues, gospel, and vintage rock‘n’roll flow together in a way that’s refreshingly free of artifice, self-consciousness, or calculation.

Those who have followed Lynne’s fascinating – and sometimes frustrating – musical history will appreciate full well the irony and truth to be found in the title Identity Crisis.Her big league career started in 1989, when she was just out of her teens: an auspicious debut, a duet with country icon George Jones. That led to a few years of almost-stardom as a young Nashville country singer – and a damned good one. Though Lynne has at times somewhat disparaged her own work of that era, it really does stand up well: her husky voice is soulful and honest, and her phrasing and delivery are already confident and sometimes breathtakingly intimate in their delivery of real emotion, despite the sometimes-formulaic Music Row production values and a tendency to sing too hard and overwhelm the songs.

It seems that the only thing that prevented Shelby Lynne from maturing into a Patty Loveless or Kathy Mattea was her own desire to transcend musical boundaries. Indeed, albums like Temptation and the appropriately titled Restless found her delivering swampy southern rock, western swing, and torchy ballads; pushing – but not quite ripping open – the Nashville studio envelope.

In the late ’90s, Lynne left Nashville and commercial, mainstream country music behind. She flew under the radar for a while, recording with producer Bill Bottrell, re-inventing herself, releasing, in 2000, the heartbroken, homesick I Am Shelby Lynne. Musical tastes of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Nashville, and Lynne’s own Alabama roots and history combined with evocative songwriting and a more restrained, calmly electrifying, smoky, honeyed vocal delivery to make a 30-minute masterpiece that’s all at once a devastatingly personal statement and a paen to the soul of the American south.

I Am Shelby Lynne won a Grammy. (To continue the irony, it was a Grammy for Best New Artist – for her sixth album in eleven years!) She followed up with the Glen Ballard-produced AOR effort, Love, Shelby.

The recent Identity Crisis marks a return to a more intimate and personal way of making records. The album doesn’t pack the same punch as I Am. It’s an album that blooms slowly over time and repeated listening, making a journey that starts with some of the sadness and tough resignation that dominated the earlier release, ending up with a sense of peace; a hard-earned, tempered-by-experience uplift. Lynne made the album pretty much by herself, layering guitars and voices in her home studio, adding some very subtle acoustic bass, percussion, and strings by other musicians afterwards, along with some tasteful and emotionally sublime piano, organ, and Fender Rhodes work from Little Feat master and studio veteran Bill Payne.

Without losing her own identity at all, Lynne manages to call up the phantom, shifting, and sensual shades of singers like Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Bobbie Gentry, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Chet Baker: all of them artists who are, or were, themselves unlimited by boundaries and categories. Gospel and soul and burning Hammond B-3 blues, Owen Bradley-ish country-politan, and a bittersweet Beatle-esque pop approach mantles the songs here, and it all blends seamlessly, held together by Lynne’s hypnotic, close-mic’ed vocal presence. Her occasional guitar solos add to the mood, making up for what they lack in chops with an arresting open-ness and an affecting simplicity.

Something about the career choices that Lynne has made point to an artist who isn’t going to be content with a cult audience. She shouldn’t be. Her music has all the hallmarks of the timeless and classic. And the things that make her so hard to categorize are the very things that make her so good.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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