Shelby Lynne, or to give her the name she was christened with, Shelby Lynn Moorer is, as many will know, the (slightly) older sister of Allison Moorer. Yet while Allison seems to go from strength to strength and be feted as a darling of the Nashville scene, Shelby Lynne always seems to be struggling for recognition on the wider stage.
Lynne released her first album, ‘Sunrise’, in 1989 yet, despite being identified as a talented singer, it would take 1999’s ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’, her sixth studio album, before she gained any real recognition of her talent and ability as an artist. ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’ gained her a Grammy Award for “Best New Artist”, some thirteen years after she’d first appeared on the TNN country music show, ‘Nashville Now’. You would hope that, having waited so long to become an overnight sensation, the Grammy would’ve marked a new launch platform for her career but her next album, 2001’s ‘Love, Shelby’, was a slicker, more pop oriented album and was fairly indifferently received.
The problem seems to be that various record labels and managers, and perhaps even Lynne herself, have struggled to work out where to position her as an artist. Her original record deal was with Epic and her first recording for the label was a duet with George Jones, ‘If I Could Bottle This Up’. It’s pretty much what you would expect a record involving George Jones to be – a slickly produced, smooth Countrypolitan sound that suits his voice but is less suited to a rawer talent like Shelby Lynne. Her own debut album, ‘Sunrise’, seems to be trying to position her as a new Tammy Wynette, even using Tammy’s frequent producer, Billy Sherrill, to helm the recordings. Then they tried a more mainstream country sound for the next album (1990’s ‘Tough All Over’) and a Country Pop approach to the one after that (1991’s ‘Soft Talk’). Through all this no-one seemed to have worked out that Shelby Lynne was in possession of a great Country Soul voice; Lynne was raised in Mobile, Alabama and you can hear that Southern States drawl in her rich, contralto singing voice. It’s a combination that works particularly well on slower, more blues-based numbers – it’s certainly wasted on the likes of Countrypolitan and Pop Country material.
Perhaps the key to who Shelby Lynne is as a singer lies in her 2008 album, ‘Just a Little Lovin’ ‘. The album is a tribute to one of her musical heroes, Dusty Springfield, taking some of the songs that Dusty was well known for but doing away with the strings and lush production to present them in a more simple fashion, often with just guitar and/or piano accompaniment. It’s a surprisingly effective album and achieved her highest US chart placing in eighteen years. This sparser, more stripped back approach really lets her voice shine through. One of the best tracks on the album is the Tony Joe White song, ‘Willie and Laura Mae Jones’ and it clearly suits Lynne’s style to be singing a song like this. In fact, White’s songs are exactly the sort of material Shelby Lynne interprets particularly well. On an earlier album, 2005’s ‘Suit Yourself’ she executes a stunning version of the classic ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ and Tony Joe himself recruited her to join the likes of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams for his acclaimed ‘The Heroines’album, where she joined him in a duet on one of the album’s best songs ‘Can’t Go Back Home’, a song that Lynne shares writing credits on.
In 2017 Shelby Lynne emerged back into the spotlight alongside her sister on the exquisite ‘Not Dark Yet’ album. Like many singing siblings, their voices combine beautifully and the album is full of great versions of some wonderfully dark songs – all covers apart from their own ‘Is It Too Much’, which the sisters wrote together. It is, in my opinion, one of the best albums of the last five years and it is a real treat to hear Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer singing and playing together – and there are rumours of a follow-up album that will contain more original material, which is definitely eagerly awaited.
It’s good to see Shelby Lynne getting some proper appreciation, even if it is for the duet album. She really deserves to be appreciated for her solo material just as much as for her work with her sister. Seek out some of the more recent albums, from 2005’s ‘Suit Yourself’ onwards, to hear one of the best country soul voices around today.