To begin simply, Shelby Lynne is one of the major voices in American music. She has nerves of silk and steel and a voice and instinct to match. And she can surely hear the nerves on the other end of the line as the interview begins.
"Give it your best shot," she says on the phone from her home in Southern California.
The Alabama-raised songwriter, producer, musician, actress (that's her in Walk the Line as Johnny Cash's mother), and above all else singer has just released Revelation Road, her seventh album since the Grammy-winning, career-transforming I Am Shelby Lynne in 1999. She plays and sings every note on the album, and of course wrote every song. The most harrowing among them is called "Heaven's Only Days Down the Road," a murder ballad spun out from the point of view of her father, who took the life of her mother, and then his own, when she was a teenager.It's a true story; all the songs are true. She wouldn't waste a precious minute on them if they weren't.
Shelby Lynne returns to St. Louis for her first club show in over six years on Thursday, January 12. She'll be playing solo acoustic at the Old Rock House (1200 S. 7th Street, 314-588-0505) as part of the venue's Listening Room series.
Roy Kasten: Can you tell me about discovering music growing up, how you first started writing songs?
Shelby Lynne: Well, I didn't start writing songs until way up into my career. My goal was to be a singer, and make records, sing everybody else's songs. I didn't have the fire to do it until I learned more about the business and discovered that I may have had something to say. But I discovered music when I was two or three years old. I was born to sing.
Do you remember when you felt, OK, this is a really good one, this is a Shelby Lynne song?
I started writing in my Nashville days, collaborating really, but didn't have the fire in my belly until I left Nashville in '98. That's when I really decided to write songs. The first song I wrote by myself that convinced me was "Leavin'" on the I Am record.
Was there something about it that convinced you?
Yeah. It was good.
How did you know it was good?
It fulfilled a need in my soul for what I wanted to say. As an artist, if you're fulfilled in your heart, you know you have something worthwhile.
What did you learn from being inside the country music establishment in Nashville?
Where do you begin? Nashville is it's own thing. It serves a purpose. I did it for ten years, made five albums there. I left because I wanted to do something else.
There are songwriters and musicians who've stuck it out in Nashville. They still make their own kind of records and write their own kinds of songs. But you felt you couldn't do that.
Nashville gets a reputation for being glossy country music, the top songs on radio -- that's what people think is Nashville. The amazing musicians and songwriters I know in Nashville are nothing like that. It's a great landing ground, a great source of artistry, and it has nothing to do with that glossy thing. Some of my greatest friends and musicians make their own records and make art there. It's a great town. But I had done my Nashville thing. I had approached it on the bigger scale, and when that didn't work out I just felt like moving on.
How did the songwriting start for this album? Was there a song or idea that triggered the rest?
There's no idea for the record and there's no process. It's not like going to university. It's not like a schedule. I'm moved emotionally by the world I'm in, the world I see, the world I feel. That's what drives me. I don't sit down and go, OK time to hunker down and write an album. It doesn't work that way for me. I write songs when I'm given a gift out of the fucking sky. My pen goes to paper, and that's about it. "Revelation Road" is the first song I wrote when I knew I was ready to get serious about putting out a record, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with the rest of the songs. There's no theme. It may seem like there is, but I just write songs until I'm tired of writing them, and then pick the ten best I got.
Maybe you don't listen to records this way, but it's almost inevitable that a listener is going to find a theme.
That's the cool thing about making records. The listener has a private relationship with it. That's why I don't like to sit around and talk about it. I don't want to put ideas in people's heads. For me as the creator of it, it's a whole different experience for me. You probably taste watermelon differently than I do. It's the same with music.
The title track draws on your experience of religion and faith, and how they can be abused. It's personal but it gestures outward, if that makes sense.
I feel like as a society we just judge too much. If someone is doing something that doesn't have anything to do with you, what the hell do you care? If we can just live our own lives in peace and not be concerned about everybody else's soul, we'd be a more peaceful society. That's what the song is about. I don't judge other people's lives, who they're sleeping with, who they're hanging out with, making music with, going to church with. I don't give a damn. And I certainly don't want other people judging me. I wrote that song out of some frustration. What's the line in the song, about "a couple of Hail Marys" and you're all good to go again? What does that mean? You can be really bad one day and ask forgiveness and then you're OK? I don't know about that.
I wanted to ask you about "Heaven's Only Days Down the Road," which tells the story of the tragedy from your youth, but it tells it from your father's point of view. You've written songs from other points of view before but nothing like this. Did you have any hesitation about it?
No. No hesitation. The songs write themselves if it's time for them to be written. I respect that. I allow myself to be open, to allow the emotions and creativity to come in, and hopefully I can finagle it to make a decent song. That song told me it was time to write it. I've made peace with my father. I don't have any bad feelings towards my past. I have glorious feelings when I sing these songs. I feel proud that I've written them.
You'll be coming back to St. Louis, solo acoustic. Can you talk about what it's like to perform, just on your own, without a band?
Well, it feels really good. I don't have to worry about anybody else. I'm on my own timing. If I feel like changing something up I don't have to look around to a bunch of deer-in-the-headlights eyeballs staring at me, going, "What?" It's a lot of responsibility as a bandleader, no matter how well you and the group know the tunes. It's a different night, a different vibe. I might get a wild hair, do something I haven't done in ten years. That doesn't go over real well with a four-piece band. They're going, "Are you crazy?" Yeah, play it in D! (Laughs.) I enjoy it, just me and my guitar. I've never done it before. On this record I play every damn thing. It's hard to hire musicians to play less than their standards, and there's nothing fancy going on on this record as you can tell. The songs can stand alone, so why not?