MUSICAL WARRIOR SHELBY LYNNE FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM
By John Fortunato
FOREWORD: Originally published in High Times during 2011, this Shelby Lynne interview revisits one of County & Western music’s best artists. Unlike the pondedrous drivel clogging mainstream Country radio these days, Lynne harkens to a time when non-generic talent like Johnny Cash (whose mother she played in the movie, Walk The Line), Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, etc.
Talented singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne Moorer’s a kindred spirit. We both love John Lennon, Steely Dan, vinyl records, college football, and good herb, but absolutely hate auto-tuned singers, American Idol, and stale Country radio. An adorable Southern pixie, Shelby Lynne’s conquered lots of ground since breaking away from Nashville’s tawdry music machine.
A true American underdog who’d face colossal challenges, Shelby and her equally gifted sister, respected folksinger Alison Moorer, confronted the most traumatic event possible when their depression-bound father took his life after shooting their mother to death outside the family’s humble home. Living at separate relative’s homes in Alabama thereafter, they overcame adolescent adversity, then record label politics, to become successful independent artists.
Only through constant perseverance would Shelby gain a musical foothold. In her teens, she cut two formative Nashville albums plagued by ultraconservative music industry veterans who’d vilely swept away a decade of Willie Nelson/ Waylon Jennings outlaw types.
‘93s Western Swing-derived Temptation was Shelby’s springboard for solo success. But it was seven years before I Am Shelby Lynne found an international audience captivated by her naked emotionality and earnest sentiments. Living in the peaceful confines of Palm Springs, California, ever since, she then unloaded a steady stream of albums utilizing the finest instrumentalists available. Much like heralded ‘60s singer, Dusty Springfield, whom Shelby paid tribute to on ‘08s acoustical retreat, Just A Little Lovin, she shares a common interest in not only Country & Western, but also Rhythm & Blues.
Dressed in a Brooks Brother sweater vest and cab driver hat, Shelby’s cute as a button when I meet her at a midtown Manhattan hotel. She’s courteous, demure, but also full of spunk. As a kid, all she wanted to do was sing, perform live, and make music. That wish came true, but at a cost. In order to break out of Music City’s cookie cutter string-laden adult contemporary slumber, this courageous feline would need to achieve her independence in a ballsy manner.
“I started fighting against Nashville after realizing I wasn’t going to have any radio hits. I figured I might as well make some good records anyhow. My passion was Western Swing, Jazz, and Country. You have to have a rebel spirit or you’re just corporate product – which I’m totally against. If someone said endorse beer or whiskey I’d be into it because I partake in those things. But at the same time, you can’t sell your soul. Sometimes you’ve got to stay poor to make the music right,” Shelby explains.
Strangely, the conservative producers and record label geeks who wanted to mold Shelby into a pampered Country starlet were too oblivious to take advantage of her killer body as a promotional tool. Instead, she did it for kicks on her most accessible record, 2001’s Love, Shelby. Produced by pop kingpin, Glen Ballard (who’d previously given Alanis Morissette universal mainstream exposure with ‘95s best selling Jagged Little Pill), its resourceful combination of lovelorn ballads, rock-driven rants, seductive come-ons, and Blues-based testimonial’s proved how diversified she really was.
But it’s not clear whether Shelby’s multifarious tunes revealed more than the ultra-sexy front and back cover and inner sleeve snapshots did. Wearing cut-off blue jeans with fingers placed ever so libidinously around her crotch area and showing off a mirrored image of her delicious butt cheeks, Love, Shelby’s salacious pictorial spread is undoubtedly one of the most arousing album designs ever.
She has a laugh, then justifies, “It seems if people want me to do something, they ought to not bring it up. So sexy is all in the heart. There’s a lot of ways to pull that off. It doesn’t have to be in the drawers. I’ve gone through my phase of tits and ass. But now is not one of those times.”
Throughout her career, Shelby’s melancholic tearjerkers and heartfelt love letters have neatly juxtaposed booze-riddled missives and jubilant Gospel-rock shuffles. On 2010’s Tears, Lies And Alibis (released on her own boutique label, Everso Records), the cooing songbird brought subtler atmospheric restraint to plaintive torch songs. Yearning romantic fervor counters gloomy heartache on poignant reflections sensitively bestowing a matured perspective. But when the sadness gets too intense, she reaches for the bottle on lonesome steel guitar-based weeper, “Old No. 7.”
“I wrote “Old No. 7″ in a drunken blur,” she claims. “I could only write what I know but never know where I’m headed. What each player brings to the party is so different. If you make plans, you’re an idiot.”
Working with Muscles Shoals legends David Hood and Spooner Oldham on Tears increased her ambition, though maybe not in the same way some stony Willie Nelson associates did awhile back on Temptation.
Shelby recalls, “I was a shy brunette kid with long country hair back then. We’d head out on the road after a show and my band would be cackling. I’d be in the back curious about what’s up. Finally, one night, I got the nerve to see them smoke pot. Then I did what every dumb kid does when they start getting high. I said, ‘I can’t feel anything. Am I high?’ Next thing, we pull into a truckstop to get food, and I’m eating one of those grill cheese sandwiches you get out of the package. It hit me. Then, I loved getting stoned.”
Though she doesn’t perform high, before I Am Shelby Lynne came out she’d spend many mornings smoking herb with Grand Marnet and a pot of coffee by her side, writing tunes under the influence. Allegedly, those songs are lost in a box somewhere. As a vehement pro-pot advocate, the transplanted Californian was recently miffed when Proposition 19 didn’t pass.
“Bible thumpers and misinformed conservatives need to go away,” she says. “They say weed’s a gateway drug. What kids can’t get their hands on weed? Kids can find it when adults can’t. Like Willie Nelson told me, ‘You just can’t do anything too much.’ I went through a wake and bake phase. But I find it’s more of a reward smoking a joint with someone afterwards.”
Although Shelby takes her pro-marijuana stance seriously, the only time she ever mentioned getting high in song was on I Am ‘s autobiographical “Where I’m From.” On this mellow jaunt, euphoric memories of her Alabama teen years come to the fore, climaxing initially with the line ‘I’m up the old Tombigbee River/ high as the pines all the time.’
As our conversation drifts onward, Shelby shows off some awe-inspiring photos of the 20-foot marijuana plant she and an associate grew from a few mediocre Mexican seeds.
“It ain’t pretty but I got half a pound. My friend found me some gnarly, ugly Mexican weed. We had the best time drinking tequila and smoking weed in Cabo San Lucas. I like shaky weed with seeds. That shit makes me giggle. It smokes well and smells like Christmas trees. I didn’t manicure the bush. Just let it grow.” But she cautions, “Medical marijuana makes me too nervous. It’s too strong and fancy.”
Coming full circle, Shelby and younger sis, Alison Moorer, got the opportunity to perform together for only the second time in late November. Putting on a warm duet concert at Tarrytown Music Hall, the Moorer’s shared original compositions, Everly Brothers chestnuts, Christmas carols, and a sisterly a cappella Color Purple number to three standing ovations. It was a true musical affirmation. And Shelby, the older sibling who’d fought for everything she got, shed a few tears.