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From the Vaults

Collection Holds Clues to Shelby Lynne's Lonesome Trail

March 02, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

If Shelby Lynne's victory in the Grammys' best new artist competition last week makes you want to check out the Alabama-bred singer-songwriter, proceed with caution in the record store.

The album you want is "I Am Shelby Lynne," her 2000 collection on Island Records that earned her the Grammy. It's an uncompromising work that speaks about romantic turmoil with a naked candor that is rare in contemporary pop.

The one you don't want--at least not until you know exactly what's involved--is "Epic Recordings," a retrospective drawn from the three country-accented albums Lynne recorded a decade or so ago on Epic Records in Nashville.

One reason "I Am Shelby Lynne" has such a sense of personal triumph is that it finally presents the artistry that many saw for years when Lynne took the stage but found missing when they listened to those Epic recordings.

Lynne was widely hailed as the next big thing in country music when she surfaced in Nashville a dozen years ago. On stage, she sang with a control and intensity that made admirers out of some of country's greatest vocalists, including George Jones, Willie Nelson and Tammy Wynette.

The reason little of that vocal authority came through on her early Epic recordings, Lynne has maintained for years, is that she wasn't allowed to pursue her musical instincts. Instead she was encouraged to make records in a radio-friendly country style.

There are no compromises on "I Am Shelby Lynne," which is one reason it has had a hard time winning radio exposure. Though the album has sold fewer than 200,000 copies since its release early last year, reviews have been generally glowing.

"I Am Shelby Lynne" finished No. 5 in the Village Voice's annual poll of more than 500 pop critics. That was 14 places ahead of Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature," which won the Grammy for album of the year.

Both in her penetrating songs (some co-written by producer Bill Bottrell) and soulful vocals, Lynne examines setbacks and desire in a rich Southern style that incorporates elements of country, blues and rock.

If after hearing it, you want to see the difference between the early Lynne and the current one, "Epic Recordings" makes that historical investigation easy. It is one of two albums in this edition of From the Vaults.

*

** Shelby Lynne, "Epic Recordings," Lucky Dog/Sony Music Entertainment.

Lynne was so frustrated about the material and arrangements on her early Epic recordings that she refused to do some of the songs on tour at the time--even though a few of the tracks were modest hits. That attitude, understandably, gave her a reputation in Nashville as a difficult artist.

Billy Sherrill, the legendary Nashville producer who worked with Tammy Wynette on most of her signature hits, scoffs at the notion that Lynne was the problem.

"She's definitely her own person, but people are wrong when they say she'd never listen to reason," Sherrill has said. "What she wouldn't listen to is idiots."

Lynne recorded three albums for Epic: 1989's "Sunrise," 1990's "Tough All Over" and 1991's "Soft Talk." Though there are no liner notes in "Epic Recordings," the new retrospective draws fairly equally from all three albums.

The mix has some eclectic touches, from pop standards ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "I'm Confessin' ") to old country-rock gems ("I Walk the Line" and "Lonely Weekends").

A few of the vocals tip off Lynne's talent, but most of the arrangements and most of the songs are far too conventional to bring out her best. For the most part, the tracks are fairly anonymous.

It's easy to imagine listening to some of these recordings--especially the dark edges of "Till You Were Gone" and "It Might Be Me"--and wondering what Lynne would sound like with the right material and tailored arrangements. The answer, of course, is found in "I Am Shelby Lynne."

*

*** Eddy Arnold, "RCA Country Legends," Buddha/RCA. If Lynne is at her best when she's most intense, Arnold is a country singer who has always been most effective when he's the most relaxed vocally. He has a smooth, comforting style that makes it reasonable to think of him as the Bing Crosby of country.

Indeed, Arnold brought strong pop sensibilities to country in the '40s through such hits as "I'll Hold You in My Heart (Til I Can Hold You in My Arms)," "Anytime" and "Bouquet of Roses." But his style was so pleasing to country audiences that his popularity weathered both the honky-tonk and rock 'n' roll movements in country, enabling him to have hits all the way into the '80s. At one point, he had 67 straight Top 10 country hits, more than any other artist.

This retrospective includes 16 of the hits, including such other tunes as "The Cattle Call" and "Make the World Go Away," which was a Top 10 pop hit in 1965. Arnold's music remains pleasant, but the pop edges make it seem less memorable today than the landmark music of many of his country rivals, from Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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