Tougher than Others
by Lisa Morgan
I remember the first time I heard Shelby Lynne’s effortlessly controlled, rich in range and depth, velvet voice floating over the airwaves of my radio. It was a song about two people calmly dividing up their belongings on the brink of their separation, only to ask the question, “What About the Love We Made? She’s upstairs in her room, cryin’ over me and you…” I was frozen, riveted to the piece of floor I happened to be standing on. I think I stopped breathing as I listened to the song, tears streaming down my face. The typical, reach down in your chest and tear your heart out through your throat country ballad might not have had the same effect on me if it wasn’t for the vessel that delivered it.
There was something in her tone, underneath the notes that made me believe she knew this kind of pain. It wasn’t over-dramatized. In fact, it was laced with that dull ache that most singers don’t dare reach for, nor could they if they wanted to. I, myself, at that very moment in time, was the woman in this story, having recently made the decision to leave the father of my three very young daughters. There is nothing more painful or important than the truth in those moments. The song could not inspire me to make amends with their father, but it forced me to see what I otherwise would have glossed over to avoid my own feelings of guilt: That these three innocents were bearing the scars of their first broken heart. I became a better mother because of it. It was also this song, along with a few select others, that inspired a burning desire to sing powerful songs like this in such a way that it could move people. You could say that I trained my voice to the songs on Lynne’s sophomore album, Tough All Over. The other songs on the album by Skip Ewing, Duke Ellington and Johnny Cash (before Cash was cross-genre cool), exposed me to classic music I would have otherwise gone without ever appreciating. And now they were my emotional therapy and vocal exercises. I did manage to use that voice, singing my way from Fresno, CA to the Vegas Strip. It wasn’t until later that I learned exactly what I was sensing in her voice that I so identified with.
Lynne’s biography on her website and Facebook pages talk of Lynne and her sister Allison singing harmonies in the car with their mother, a gifted singer and musical mentor to her daughters. It was her father’s guitar Lynne began to learn to play at the age of 7. He was an English teacher, Juvenile Corrections Officer and a weekend guitar player who lit his daughter’s troubadour fire when he taught her a few simple chords. She took it and ran with it. But at age 17, an inconceivable tragedy displaced Lynne and her sister from their home. They lost both their parents to a murder-suicide, orchestrated by their father. This event is NOT part of the bio nor should it be as it is not an event that should or could define this artist. I, myself, the daughter of a murdered mother…well, it was just one more thing that deepened my appreciation and my imagined understanding of this unique and under praised artist.
Shelby Lynne consistently produced and found chart placement with her music, but never reached top 20 or platinum sales status. After two more record releases on two different labels, Lynne seemed to disappear for a while. Upon moving to Palm Springs in ’98, Lynne connected with producer, Bill Bottrell resulting in her breakthrough alternative country album, This is Shelby Lynne. It was a turning point and a victory. She was awarded the 2001 Grammy for Best New Artist. In her acceptance speech, Shelby Lynne commented, “Thirteen years and six albums to get here…”.
Lynne has not ceased to produce, write and collaborate, though it continues to be a frustrating fact that her releases have never quite broken whatever invisible barriers keep her flying below the commercial success radar. Her last album, Revelation Road did manage to peak at number 6 in the US Billboard Top Folk Albums. In my humble opinion, Shelby Lynne continues to bravely tap into that creative well that life has carved so deeply in her. All I can say to music fans attending Stagecoach this weekend is this: DO NOT LET THIS ARTIST FLY UNDER YOUR RADAR. She is one of ours now, Coachella Valley. Shelby Lynne is truly tougher than most, and you can bet that decades of fighting to find her own voice and overcoming obstacles is guaranteed to bear witness to a performance no other artist is or could ever be qualified to give.