Pop: 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.
Shelby Lynne is a striking, blue-eyed blonde. Friendly but forthright, she smokes Lucky Strikes and drives a 1968 Cadillac Coupe Deville. When she appeared on the cover of style magazine Dazed & Confused recently, she was alluringly plastered in what looked like Mississippi mud. When we met at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, the delicious twang of her Southern drawl reeled me in like 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 he played country guitar in his spare time. Shelby fished, tended to livestock, and in the evenings her grandmother taught her to sing harmonies 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 to deflect intrusive questions. "What I will say is this," Lynne says, cueing-up a quote I've read elsewhere. "Whatever happened to me back 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 her childhood sweetheart, Kenneth, but they were divorced after 18 months. Next, she moved to Nashville, pursuing a childhood dream to make 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 "songwriter dudes". Bizarrely, she found herself on Nashville Now, country music's equivalent of Top Of The Pops, within a few months. This exposure led to work with such luminaries as George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and soon she was duetting with Jones on a single produced 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 a million 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 records consisted of songs that were just... well it was agonising trying to find great qualities in them," she says, flatly. Fortunately, Brent Maher, producer of superstar mother-daughter act The Judds, had taught Shelby everything he knew about songwriting when they'd worked together on her fourth album. Tired of the Nashville scene's stylistic limitations and incestuousness, she began writing for herself.

Listening to the forthcoming album I Am Shelby Lynne (the title is a cut-and-paste steal from a personal note to her manager) one wishes she'd gone it alone earlier. Discerningly produced by Betty's husband Bill Bottrel, it's a classic-sounding record which draws inspiration from such disparate talents as Dusty Springfield, Billie Holiday and Hank Williams. What's immediately pleasing is the honesty of the album, and the way that it side-steps corporate gloss. Fittingly, Mojo magazine described it as "a must-have for anyone who 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 Argentine veteran George Del Barrio, now in his late sixties. With its references to logmen cutting timber and the Tom Bigbee river which separated her parents when they were growing up, "Where I'm From" finds Lynne transporting herself back to rural Alabama. "That's why I insisted that George worked with Southern string-players from Memphis", she explains. "An LA string-sound would have been wrong."

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

These days, Lynne lives in Palm Springs, where the arid climate contrasts sharply with the wet, muggy summers in Frankville. "It's close 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 the desert 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.

`I Am Shelby Lynne' is out 20 September on Mercury Records