A gifted singer and songwriter from rural Alabama, Shelby Lynne was barely out of her teens when, in 1987, she was discovered on the Nashville Network's "Nashville Now" program. Touted as the Next Big Thang, Lynne signed a deal with Epic, where she recorded a duet with George Jones, "If I Could Bottle This Up." Her three albums for the label earned decent reviews and produced a few singles, but Lynne never hit it big, and she grew tired of Nashville's rigid approach to music making. Picked up by the now-defunct Morgan Creek label, Lynne explored Western swing and jazz on "Temptation" (1993). Switching to another independent, Magnatone, in 1995, she recorded "Restless," a critical favorite that disappeared without a trace. It seemed entirely possible that Lynne might do the same thing: You can't even buy her albums these days -- sadly, they're all out of print.
Now comes "I Am Shelby Lynne," a soulful collection of heart-rending pop songs that owes more to Dusty Springfield than Patsy Cline. As the title suggests, this is supposed to be the real Shelby Lynne, the country girl from Alabama with the smoky, sultry voice, not the slicked-up Nashville singer who played by the rules but got run out of town by the men in suits. "I'm leavin'," she sings, "this time it's for good/You should have treated me/The way you said you would." The song is about saying goodbye to a lover, but it might as well be Lynne's farewell to Music City, USA.
Although she recorded the album in California, Lynne, just 31 years old, seems to have taken up residency in Tennessee's other musical hotbed, Memphis. "Your Lies," which kicks off the album with sweeping violins and a driving electric guitar, sounds like an outtake from "Dusty in Memphis." The cool, funky "Thought It Would Be Easier" evokes the Willie Mitchell-era Al Green. "Why Can't You Be?" employs a Memphis-style horn section. Lynne's voice -- an engaging blend of soul and country -- is custom made for this kind of material.
So why doesn't "I Am" quite hit the mark? Blame it on producer Bill Bottrell, best-known for his work with Sheryl Crow. Simply put, he lays it on a little too thick. On "Your Lies," for instance, Lynne's voice gets trapped behind a Phil Spectorish wall of sound. (You can bet Jerry Wexler never would have done that to Springfield.) The same thing happens on the heavily orchestrated "Gotta Get Back." A repetitive riff on a 12-string guitar nearly drowns out Lynne's vocals, about the anticipation of being reunited with the man she loves. ("I can almost touch you now/Flying above the clouds in a big ol' plane/I can't wait to hold you and see you again/Tell you where I've been.")
On several songs, Bottrell's arrangements appear to be lifted directly from his favorite records of the 1960s. For instance, you can't listen to "Dream Some" without thinking of, say, Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach's "Walk on By." (Bottrell even throws in a cheesy flute solo for good measure.) Why not just call the album "I Am Bill Bottrell"?
A few songs, though, hint at what could have been. On "Where I'm From," Bottrell lets Shelby be Shelby, and the result is a wonderful ode to Lynne's Alabama home. "Crickets spreadin' rumors by the shoreline," she sings in a dreamy twang, accompanied by bass, guitar and strings. "With the lonesome lady whine/Crab trap full of nothin'/I'm high as the tide, all the tide ... All I'm tryin' to say is/I'm never far away from/Alabama frame of mind." The sad, lonely "Lookin' Up," with it's simple arrangement and poignant lyrics, is one the album's highlights. "Walkin' and cryin'/Stumble into a church," Lynne sings softly, in a wise-beyond-her-years voice. "Starin' at the rafters/Wonderin' how much more I can hurt/Hey old man, what are your plans for me?/Where am I bound?/I'm lookin' up for the next thing that brings me down."
"I Am Shelby Lynne" feels like a fresh start from someone who's been burned too many times before. You can't help but admire her for making such a dramatic departure from previous work. Still, it's not the breakthrough album she deserves. Maybe next time she'll get it right.