Shelby Lynne's 'Identity Crisis' is anything but

Her best work branches out from her country core

Music: in concert, CDs

November 06, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Don't believe her.

Shelby Lynne calls her new CD Identity Crisis, but the Grammy-winning artist knows who she is. And she knew precisely what she was doing in the studio as she produced what is surely the best album of her career.

"I always knew I could make a record like this, really simple," says Lynne, who's calling from her home in Palm Springs, Calif. "Instead of doing a bunch of fancy production, I did it myself."

Which is a good thing. Lynne, who plays Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis Saturday night, is a fiercely independent artist, a singer-songwriter of great depth and vision. In the past, when she allowed others to helm her records, the results were sometimes uneven and forced. Last year's Love, Shelby -- an uninspired hodgepodge of light R&B, numb rock and glossy country-pop produced by Glen Ballard -- was, indeed, an "identity crisis."

On the cover of the album, Lynne rocked teeny denim shorts and a tank top, a look that suggested she was in competition with younger, lesser talents such as Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. The look, the sound didn't serve Lynne well, and the album flopped. "Yep, I'm pretty good at keeping folks confused," says the artist, 35. "And I don't mean to do that. I just do the music I can be close to and listen to again."

The 12 rootsy, well-crafted songs of Identity Crisis will draw you in again and again. The country elements of Lynne's style permeate the disc and make it cohesive. But various flavors -- generous helpings of Southern-fried blues, a smidgen of psychedelic rock, a drop of traditional pop and ribbons of gospel -- brighten the music. Lyrically, Lynne is, at times, wryly humorous ("Buttons and Beaus"), heartbreakingly confessional ("If I Were Smart") and vividly emotional ("I Don't Think So").

Before making the record, she had been on the road for five years straight, during which Lynne recorded the internationally acclaimed I Am Shelby Lynne, the album that snagged her a Grammy for best new artist in 2001. It was a strange win for the woman, because she wasn't exactly new on the scene. Epic Records put out her debut, Sunrise, in 1989, and four other sets, including 1990's well-regarded Tough All Over, followed. Over the years, though, the singer's sound (and look) changed wildly -- from slick, faceless pop to overblown, cliche-ridden swing.

But on Identity Crisis, Lynne decided to strip it down and keep it real.

"Staying at home was a complete change for me," she says. "Lots of emotional space. If you have time to sit around like I did last year, you think about things you didn't think about the last five or six years. And a lot of that came into my mind. ... I didn't sleep a lot, stayed up at night writing songs. That's the way it was. Pretty simple."

Lynne's personal history is neither pretty nor simple. Her past brims with the kind of sadness that inspires the deepest blues. She was born in Quantico, Va., but was raised in Jackson, Ala. Her father was a local bandleader, her mother a harmony-singing teacher. The two performed in the region, and Lynne and her younger sister Allison joined them on stage occasionally. But all was not well at home. Dad was a violent alcoholic. He once had a teen-age Lynne thrown in jail on a trumped-up charge.

When the singer was 17, her father shot Lynne's mother in the family driveway, killing her instantly. He then turned the gun on himself. Lynne and her sister witnessed everything. The event thrust the artist into adulthood as she took charge of raising her sister, married her high school sweetheart and moved to Nashville, where she pursued a singing career.

She recorded some demos, did some local country TV and other gigs, and scored a hit with "If I Could Bottle This Up," a 1988 duet with George Jones. The Top 50 single led to a solo contract with Epic, where she released three albums that showcased (sometimes disjointedly) an array of styles.

It's funny that Lynne would call her most consistent, most stylistically focused album Identity Crisis.

She says, "Everybody was telling me I couldn't do it, that I couldn't make an album like this. But I could and, hell, I did. I'm always going against the system. I make things hard, and I guess I like it hard. I get bored easily."

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