From tragedy to triumph

She sang with George Jones and Tammy Wynette, but listening to Shelby Lynne's latest album, it's hard not to wish that she'd gone it alone sooner
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Shelby Lynne is a striking, blue-eyed blonde. Friendly but forthright, she smokes Lucky Strikes and drives a 1968 Cadillac CoupeDeville. When she appeared on the cover of style magazine Dazed & Confused recently, she was alluringly plastered in what lookedlike Mississippi mud. When we met at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, the delicious twang of her Southern drawl reeled me inlike a blissfully stunned trout. If ever they wanted to remake The Dukes Of Hazard, she'd make a great Daisy Duke.

Shelby Lynne is a striking, blue-eyed blonde. Friendly but forthright, she smokes Lucky Strikes and drives a 1968 Cadillac CoupeDeville. When she appeared on the cover of style magazine Dazed & Confused recently, she was alluringly plastered in what lookedlike Mississippi mud. When we met at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, the delicious twang of her Southern drawl reeled me inlike a blissfully stunned trout. If ever they wanted to remake The Dukes Of Hazard, she'd make a great Daisy Duke.

If this sounds a little generous with the Southern-belle kudos, consider the following : Lynne grew up in Franksville, Alabama, "a tiny,rural town with a population of about 200". Her father was an English teacher who schooled her in Steinbeck and Hemingway, but heplayed country guitar in his spare time. Shelby fished, tended to livestock, and in the evenings her grandmother taught her to singharmonies to old 78 records by Ella Fitzgerald. She still regards "nanny" as her most perceptive critic.

When she was 17, the rural idyll came to an abrupt end. Her ex-marine father shot her mother, then turned the gun on himself.Understandably, she's still rather guarded about the tragedy, and when her manager Betty sits in on our interview, I wonder if it's todeflect intrusive questions. "What I will say is this," Lynne says, cueing-up a quote I've read elsewhere. "Whatever happened to meback then made me the woman I am today."

As often with bereavement, the death of Shelby's parents kick-started a highly significant chain of events. At 18 she married herchildhood sweetheart, Kenneth, but they were divorced after 18 months. Next, she moved to Nashville, pursuing a childhood dream tomake records. "It wasn't a culture shock, because I'd always been ready," she says. "I went there on my feet."

Through a combination of determination and self-belief, she made contacts quickly while demo-ing tunes for local "songwriterdudes". Bizarrely, she found herself on Nashville Now, country music's equivalent of Top Of The Pops, within a few months. Thisexposure led to work with such luminaries as George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and soon she was duetting with Jones on a singleproduced by country legend Billy Sherill. "It was called 'If I Could Bottle This Up', and said, if I could bottle your love up, I'd make amillion dollars," she smiles. "It was a very country lyric."

Over the next decade or so, Shelby recorded five albums in Nashville, none of them particularly successful. "Most of those recordsconsisted of songs that were just... well it was agonising trying to find great qualities in them," she says, flatly. Fortunately, BrentMaher, producer of superstar mother-daughter act The Judds, had taught Shelby everything he knew about songwriting when they'dworked together on her fourth album. Tired of the Nashville scene's stylistic limitations and incestuousness, she began writing forherself.

Listening to the forthcoming album I Am Shelby Lynne (the title is a cut-and-paste steal from a personal note to her manager) onewishes she'd gone it alone earlier. Discerningly produced by Betty's husband Bill Bottrel, it's a classic-sounding record which drawsinspiration from such disparate talents as Dusty Springfield, Billie Holiday and Hank Williams. What's immediately pleasing is thehonesty of the album, and the way that it side-steps corporate gloss. Fittingly, Mojo magazine described it as "a must-have for anyonewho thinks that they can't make soul like they used to".

In Lynne's view, much of the album's magic emanates from its inspired string arrangements. These were the work of the Argentineveteran George Del Barrio, now in his late sixties. With its references to logmen cutting timber and the Tom Bigbee river whichseparated her parents when they were growing up, "Where I'm From" finds Lynne transporting herself back to rural Alabama. "That'swhy I insisted that George worked with Southern string-players from Memphis", she explains. "An LA string-sound would have beenwrong."

If "Where I'm From" recalls Lynne's childhood fondly, the album's Billie Holiday-influenced coda "Black Lite Blue" is a sublimemeditation which it's difficult not to associate with the loss of her parents. "It's a tragic, empty, suicidal thing," she says, "just a feelthat says no matter what, you stand alone." A recent letter from her nanny described the song more succinctly. "Honey," it said, "that'ssome real deep stuff."

These days, Lynne lives in Palm Springs, where the arid climate contrasts sharply with the wet, muggy summers in Frankville. "It'sclose to LA, which I hate," she says, "but it's not fashionable, which I love. The best thing," she continues, "is you can go into thedesert and listen to the quiet real closely."

I squeeze in one last question: had there ever been a point in her career when she'd felt as though her parents were watching over her?"Oh yeah," she says, after a long silence. "Definitely."

She glances over at Betty, then looks me straight in the eye with a firm, yet warm smile. It's a caveat, and I let it lie.

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