“As I stand here talking to you,” Shelby Lynne confesses, on the phone from her Palm Springs home, “I have no clothes on. I can stand here and talk and work on my tan, and it’s just all fine…” She laughs as she says it. Lynne, the ultimate free spirit and slow-burning vocalist, has no fear of letting it all hang out. Her albums have been just as forthright, though not always quite as sunny.
But her new album, I Can’t Imagine, runs rampant with optimism. The smoky-voiced songstress considers her Southern past in a way that mines the happy memories to tell more buoyant stories. Recorded at Maurice, Louisiana’s funky Dockside Studio, Lynne, musical director Ben Peeler and a handful of pickers produced a steamy gospel and soul hybrid that feels warm and engaging.
“It’s getting as close as I’ve ever been to using all of my influences,” Lynne says, dragging out the “awllll” to last a good three beats. What a gumbo it is: Neil Young, Allen Tousaint, the Burrito Brothers, Bobby Womack, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, bits of ‘60s pop, “weird Americana, some California pedal steel.” Nevertheless, Lynne’s boiling sense of passion never gets lost in the mix.
“If I planned a record, I don’t know if anyone’d know how to act!” she says, laughing when discussing the technicalities of I Can’t Imagine. “We’re flying by the seat of the night! I’d heard about Dockside even when I was in Nashville; Steve Nails, this great guitar player back in the ‘80s, had opened Dockside after he had a car wreck—and everybody’s recorded there. I figured ‘Why the fuck not?’ I needed Southern vibe, some place we could hang out and just be.”
Lynne is a prolific musician. Imagine is her 13th record. She’s recorded modern country with Billy Sherrill (Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”), big-band swing, adult alternative with Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club), even a Dusty Springfield homage with Phil Ramone (Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon). In 2011 Lynne released Revelation Road, which she produced, wrote and performed herself—every note on an album many believe is a watershed. “I was telling Sissy [singer/songwriter Allison Moorer] the other day, ‘I love making albums!’ It’s an accomplishment kind of thing for me! You go in, you do the work. It’s a task.”
Road—beyond the work—was also an album that reckoned with her past. “You get older, and you get grateful; I’d like to think wiser,” she says. “[When I look back], I love my childhood, all of that. You realize life is fragile…I’m older than my dead Daddy now.” She pauses, careful to choose her words, weighing the legacy of watching her father kill her mother, then turn the gun on himself. “I can appreciate him now as a full-grown person, who was going through hell and probably in need of a good shrink. Something I have the privilege of having.”
Road paved the way for Imagine, a bright collection of songs as real as they are evocative. Looking back without flinching, she was able to celebrate squirrel hunting with her father (“Following You”) and the unseen Southern Gothic (“Down Here”). “I’m a pretty Southern girl, so it depends on what you’re looking for,” she says. “There are so many facets, and you take that with you. But I love that Sneaky Pete steel guitar, California long hair country, too. There are similarities, you’d be surprised. And I wanted all of that on this record.” More than anything there’s a deep heat to the vocals on Imagine—whether it’s the free-drift at the end of “Out Here” or the moaning mantra she intones on “Better” to convince herself being rid of a lover is the best thing. The characters are complicated tangles of joy, ache, defeat, frustration and love in all its forms. Lynne’s performances embrace the complications and offer nuances that lift the songs upwards.
Writing in 2012 and 2013, Lynne realized she was shifting. Having done it all on Road, she wanted different ideas. Lynne wanted to change the way she approached the songs and subject matter. “I wanted some male energy!” she declares. “I wanted to see what that did.” She wrote “Sold The Devil (Sunshine)” with longtime musical director Ben Peeler, who came out to the desert on a hot day to see what they could find. She collaborated on “I Can’t Imagine” and “Better” with Pete Donnelly, from the Figgs. “He’s like my soul brother. And his band’s XTC as shit!” she says. “But he knows I love Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, so he brings that.”
She enlisted Ron Sexsmith in a most modern way: they never sat down. He had reached out to her through Facebook, something Lynne seldom looks at. Interested, she decided to respond and see if he wanted to write. “I wasn’t even sure he knew who I was, then he says ‘Hell, yes!’” Lynne put an idea down via GarageBand and sent it off. “He sends me back a damned masterpiece! Then he sent me something else, and we were off,” Lynne says. “I read that Ira and George Gershwin wrote letters back and forth! We didn’t invent the wheel here. Sure, it feels good seeing [the writing] going down, but it’s about taking the song and being in its service. That’s the deal.”
For Lynne, who made her first album at 18, I Can’t Imagine is a culmination of many things. It also seems to mark the beginning of a lighter, more carefree direction. “It doesn’t take a lot to please me; I’m a groove girl,” she says. “If I’m grooving, I’m good. If I can get onto the vibe, take it from there, the vibe will show us what to do. Getting where you can make those things happen, now that is the trick…” Her voice trails off.