SHELBY LYNNE, hiding behind vintage sunglasses and a casual sneer, slumped back against a bus-stop bench on Sunset Boulevard and checked her cellphone one more time. Lynne's manager was still fighting cross-town traffic and the singer was overdue for a lunchtime appointment with a pitcher of margaritas.
"You'll like me better after a couple of drinks," the country singer said to the journalist sharing the bench. "After a few, I'll say anything." Lynne likes to have fun with her reputation. Back in the 1990s, when she was a newcomer in Nashville, she was labeled a problem child in a company town that only pretends to love mavericks. Then she picked up some other labels -- commercial disappointment, studio hard case, party girl -- and there were whispers about her past, especially the lurid death of her parents back in Alabama when she was 17.
Lynne's talent, however, was never in doubt, which is why there was always another record label ready to take a chance on her. Billy Sherrill, the producer who crafted "Stand By Your Man" for Tammy Wynette, had come out of semi-retirement the first time he heard Lynne sing. She proved Sherrill's instincts right in 2001 when she won the prestigious Grammy for best new artist for her album "I Am . . . Shelby Lynne," a masterpiece of torch songs and tortured stories. Great successes were predicted; they haven't happened yet.
Now the people surrounding Lynne are pulsing with excitement that her breakthrough may be here. On Jan. 29, Lost Highway Records will release her 10th studio album, "Just a Little Lovin'. " The collection is a spare, mesmerizing tribute to the late Dusty Springfield, another singer with a haunting voice and haunted past. "This," Lynne said, "is sacred ground to me."
Her handlers hope that Lynne, like Norah Jones or Amy Winehouse, will cut through with a sound that is both of the moment but also a valentine to the past. Nothing would make Lynne happier than to live in a flintier analog age.
On the bus bench, the singer wearing a Morrissey shirt was sitting with about $160 worth of just-purchased music, almost all of it on vinyl, from Amoeba Music. James Brown, Roberta Flack, Tammy Wynette, Muddy Waters -- stuff that she could never find back in Palm Springs, where she has lived for six years because "it's quiet and I don't like scenes."
Lynne is most comfortable in the studio and on stage, where she is a self-described "belter." Through the years her music has taken her in different directions -- into lush and soulful zones as well as her alt-country base sound -- but in November, during a five-city club tour, the Springfield songs took her to a new place of quiet restraint, and won strong reviews.
Anchored in the past
LYNNE'S Alabama drawl is easiest to hear when she's drinking or angry and, like some John Ford character marooned in a Dr. Phil universe, the things that make her angriest are flimsy talents, pretension and the modern obsession with technology. Her new album was recorded on 2-inch tape, not with Pro Tools. She has a MySpace page but has never seen it. She had a computer once but, well, it broke.
"I am the youngest dinosaur, believe me," the 39-year-old said while wandering through Amoeba. "I had an iPod but I am so over that, I'm done. I believe in vinyl. You have to dedicate yourself when you put a record on: You have to get up to turn it over. You can't get up and walk around the yard. And the album covers -- you can't roll a joint on an iPod." Lynne is enthralled by music history and feels an evangelical power coming off those secondhand LPs, too. Walking around Amoeba with her is like touring a cathedral with a true believer. "Oh, look, Faron Young!" "Have you heard Sister Rosetta Tharp?" She breathlessly told the tale of the gypsy caravan fire in the 1920s that scorched the hand of guitar demigod Django Reinhardt ("His fingers were fused but he still played amazing!") and, a heartbeat later, debated the legacy damage Buck Owens suffered by co-hosting "Hee Haw." You could call Lynne petite (she's 5-foot-1 and "a size zero," as her manager, Elizabeth Jordan, puts it), but there's something in her bar-fight glare that would make you think twice. She enjoys the rowdy rep but say she spends more gardening, recording in her garage studio and doting on Junior, her Italian greyhound. The dog can flat out fly if it wants to, but usually it just lolls around the house. "I love that," Lynne said. "It's the same as me."
Outside Amoeba, staring into a display window with antique turntables and grinning images of Fats Waller and Louis Prima, she abruptly announced she will no longer attend burials.