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She Had Such High Hopes

With rave reviews and media interest, nominee Shelby Lynne looked to break out last year. So what happened?

February 18, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at

For the second or two that it takes for a presenter to read her name during the best new artist presentation at the Grammys on Wednesday, Shelby Lynne will be center stage in the pop world.

If she wins, the exposure will go well beyond the few minutes we'll watch her step onstage and accept the award. The victory could set in motion the events that might truly make her pop's latest Cinderella story.

With a Grammy in hand, her record label, Island/Def Jam, would renew its attempt to get radio programmers to play the challenging and confessional music in her latest album, "I Am Shelby Lynne."

The win would also encourage Lynne, 32, to go through another grueling round of interviews, TV shows and concerts--all in hopes of jump-starting sales, which, at about 162,000 copies, have lagged far behind her critical acclaim.

If she doesn't win best new artist, however, the commercial fight for "I Am Shelby Lynne" will end. She and the record company will turn their attention to her next album, hoping it will help her reach the wider audience that eluded this one.

On the eve of the Grammys, Lynne looked back on the ups and downs of 2000 with the same frankness that is a trademark of her music. For all the thrill of having her music hailed by peers and critics, there was also the deep frustration of not being able to reach a mass audience.

"There was a point [last year] where I was just so discouraged that I didn't think I could ever write a song again," Lynne, a Palm Springs resident now, says during a visit to Los Angeles with manager Betty Bottrell.

"I love my record. It was the proudest accomplishment in all my years of making records, but everything was such a struggle. . . . It was hard to work and work and work and not get your music played on the radio."

It was a struggle that once more tested the mettle of Lynne, who rebelled for years in Nashville against attempts to push her in a tepid pop-country direction. She got a reputation as a troublemaker and was largely written off by Nashville after she headed home to Alabama four years ago to make a record on her own terms.

Working with producer Bill Bottrell, who co-produced Sheryl Crow's debut album and is the ex-husband of Lynne's manager, the country maverick poured her soul into "I Am Shelby Lynne," a collection of dark, desperate songs about fighting for self-esteem after a relationship has soured. (Bottrell also has a Grammy nomination for producer of the year for his work on the album.)

Just as she found the strength to make that album, Lynne also battled through her depression to overcome the barriers to getting the album exposed.

She recalls, "I remember being at home with a fever, and I finally just got tired of feeling bad. I said [expletive] this. I'm getting back to work. I ended up writing three songs that day. . . . I learned a lot last year and I feel stronger. I'm looking to the future."

Here's a look at Lynne's "Cinderella" year:

January 2000. Lynne was restless. Her album had been finished for more than a year, and she wanted to see it in the stores. But Island/Def Jam had been reorganized during the consolidation of labels following Seagram's purchase of PolyGram in late 1998. Island/Def Jam Chairman Jim Caparro knew Lynne's album was special, but he also felt it wasn't an easy sell for radio. Rather than rush it out, he wanted a special marketing plan.

One step was the release of the album in England in the fall of 1999. Executives there were confident they could build a buzz, something that could help pre-sell the album to media and retailers in the U.S. And British critics did fall in love with the album. "From that unequivocal title and blue-eyed stare on its cover, [this is] an album that shouts its defiance," declared influential Q magazine.

Island sent advance copies of the album--along with the glowing reviews--to critics in this country. Magazines and newspapers began requesting interviews. Newsweek proclaimed, "Lynne blows off a half-baked country career with a soulful, bluesy, rapturous declaration of independence."

The album was finally released here Jan. 25. Lynne opened her promotional campaign that night with an appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

February. First-week sales of about 4,000 weren't enough to earn "I Am Shelby Lynne" a place on Billboard's top 100 sellers, but the singer was delighted.

"I didn't think it would sell that many," she says, looking back. "Man, it was encouraging to sell any at that point. Betty and I knew we would have to get on the road to sell it. We never fooled ourselves into thinking it would get played on the radio. The world's not into what I'm into with that record. It's too dark."

March. Lynne debuted her live show in the U.S. on March 17 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas--and the industry buzz heightened. After some dates in Europe, she and her band rehearsed for their first U.S. club tour. By the end of the month, weekly sales were still around the 4,000 mark.

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