I Am Shelby Lynne turns 20 this year, and in the years since I first heard it shortly after its release it has rarely been far from my computer. It was one of the first albums I downloaded from Napster (along with Radiohead’s Kid A) and I have an official CD copy somewhere, but this is one of those albums that’s always lived on a hard drive for me.
It made an immediate impression on me and the reason for that is simple: good songwriting and a believable, aching voice out front. But there’s more, quite a bit of which resides in producer Bill Botwell’s sound. He creates a sort of Dusty In Memphis for the digital age, with drum loops all around and a studio edge, but there are sonic touches that pay homage to so many sounds of the past: the Spectorish strings and snare heavy drum breaks of “Your Lies,” for example. Or the way the strings flutter like the butterfly wings Shelby mentions in “Gotta Get Back.”
Listening to “Leavin'” and “Dreamsome” the Dusty Springfield reference seems obvious now, and Shelby cemented her link to Springfield with the 2008 release Just A Little Lovin’, an album of Springfield covers. The Memphis Bottrell creates for Shelby isn’t the real Memphis, it’s the stuff of legend and mythology. But Shelby Lynne herself brought the realness: by the time she recorded I Am Shelby Lynne she’d already been part of the country music scene for ten years and had six albums under her belt.
Despite all those years of playing by the rules of the country music industry, Lynne had little to show for it by the mid 1990s. She went to Palm Springs, California to record I Am Shelby Lynne and Bottrell encouraged her to be more personal in her songwriting. The results showed what a great songwriter she was. On “I Thought It Would Be Easier” she finds a favorite shirt belonging to her ex and tosses out the lines “Does she like blue like I do/I bet she gets around.” Sad and catty, the line cuts hard and reveals the pain behind the flip attitude.
Bill Bottrell was already known for giving Sheryl Crow a signature sound on Tuesday Night Music Club and he did the same for Shelby Lynne. So much so that Lynne’s newfound songwriting confidence and the studio touches made I Am Shelby Lynne that rare thing in the music business–a reset. The album was like Shelby’s debut and although may were confused by her Grammy win for Best New Artist, she was a new artist in every sense of the word.
Shelby Lynne was just one in a line of women songwriters and performers who started in country music but had to move into a different lane in order to have successful careers in the music business. Shania Twain, Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves all come to mind, and there are many more besides.
I Am Shelby Lynne is a near perfect album and it proved predictably difficult to follow up. Lynne worked with rock producer Glen Ballard on her next album, Love, Shelby and though the songs were still good, the sound didn’t measure up to its predecessor. Ballard was coming off his work with Lisa Marie Presley on her debut album and he provided a similar sound for Shelby. Love Shelby was released in 2001, while Lisa Marie’s album sat in the vaults until it was released in 2003.
Shelby Lynne went back to doing what she wanted to do in 2003 releasing Identity Crisis and Suit Yourself and taking on her own production moving forward. Her albums since Love Shelby have been all about songwriting and performing with very little frills. I Am Shelby Lynne turned out to be the reset Shelby had been working toward, pointing the way towards her best work.
Related: Tony Joe White Lived It and Wrote It