Shelby Lynne’s the only one calling the shots for Shelby Lynne these days. She’s writing solo, producing herself, releasing her albums on her own label and—in the case of her newest, Revelation Road—performing every part, right down to the drums. With her sensual hook-writing, mood-setting and storytelling gifts on display, it’s striking to think that Lynne—a singer-songwriter who knows her mind—got her start as a promising mainstream country song interpreter.
In the past you’ve always recorded with other players. Did fleshing out the songs entirely on your own change the way you looked at them?
Well, it was different, for sure. It’s a lot easier to play it than to try to tell somebody else what I want them to play. I mean, I’m not as good a player as I can get to play. But I just didn’t want that kind of record. I didn’t want a bunch of fancy licks and everything. I wanted really, really, really simple, and that’s what I played. So I kept it simple, as not to hurt myself.
Did you know when you were writing the songs that that would be the way you would approach recording them?
Well, I mean, I didn’t ever have a plan, because I just can’t really make plans. I just kind of went over there and I sang it and then I thought, “Well, that’s good enough.” When I sit down in front of the microphone with my guitar I just make sure I’ve got everything clear and level. Grady’s my engineer. I just make sure we’re all good and then I record it the best way I can, then start adding to it. It’s kinda like if you try to make it complicated, it’ll suck.
Particularly if the song can stand on its own.
Yeah. That’s the first thing. You’ve got to have a good song and a story or something to hold onto, something that makes you feel. You know, I use my own inner barometer for that. I feel like if it’s bothering me or if it’s poking at me to write it, there’s gotta be something there. So I’ll sit with it ‘til I write it. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s … not so fast.
This is a really well-rounded collection of songs.
Thank you. It’s one of those records that I’m proud of, and really close to it.
It’s being called your most personal. My impression is that’s because some of the songs seem to have autobiographical storytelling in them. Why do you think you’ve arrived at these songs two decades into your career?
Well, I don’t know. Personally, I feel like a freer person. I’m a happier person. I feel like I don’t really have a problem writing anything, no matter if it’s about my life or the life I’ve lived, as far as the mistakes I’ve made or my history, my childhood. I feel like if it’s poetic, write it.
The image of you as a singer and songwriter is so established at this point that it’s easy to forget that songwriting wasn’t in the picture at first. What was your relationship to songwriting like at the beginning of your career, and how did writing become a priority?
Well, in the beginning there was no interest at all. When I walked into Nashville at 18 years old, I wasn’t encouraged to write anything. It wasn’t top of my list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a singer; I wanted to be a famous star; I wanted to be Tammy Wynette … That’s what you do when you go to Nashville. You get a record deal and here’s what you cut: “This is the girl singer’s song this week. Here.” That’s kind of the way it was presented to me.
So I listened to some of the songs they wanted me to cut, and I cut some of them and I kinda liked some of them and I kinda didn’t like a lot of them. That’s what happens. That’s why I don’t perform any of those songs. There were more or less forced on me by the label, which at the time was CBS. I didn’t feel close to ‘em … They want something to put on the radio, and I didn’t even get that then. I was such a little green thing. I just wasn’t being fulfilled … I guess it was Temptation, when I did the big band record, [that] I started writing. And that was fun. I instantly enjoyed it. I started writing songs with Brent Maher, who produced the record.
That was at a turning point in my career when I decided that I didn’t want to fool around with the Nashville system. I didn’t want to do the songs that were on the radio then. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to make art. So I started following what my soul really loved, which, you know, I grew up on western swing … I think it was after the next record when I gave it one more shot in the Nashville thing to try to get on the radio. I decided at that point “No, I’m sick of this shit. I can’t do it anymore. I’m gonna start writing my own things. I’ve got something to say, and by god, I’m gonna say it.” And that’s when I turned my back.
Since you’d been told singing was what you were supposed to do and songwriting was the job of others, was there a process of building your confidence as a writer?
Yeah. The first song I ever sat down and had completely written by myself that I knew was a record-worthy piece of work was “Leavin’.” I wrote that song by myself, living in Lieper’s Fork, a shitty record deal gone wrong, nobody answers a phone call, nothing’s going on. I mean, it’s like the Shelby Lynne Nashville career is dead. And I was at a turning point again, sat down and wrote “Leavin’.” And that was when I started seeking out other avenues.
That was a significant moment.
And I knew I had the confidence, and I knew I had something to say. And it didn’t have to be cookie [cutter] or anything but real emotions down on the paper, coming out of my mouth singin’. That’s when I knew all of my childhood dreams and fantasies of becoming Tammy Wynette went out the [window], and that’s when I become Shelby Lynne.
You felt like people in the industry were trying to put you in a box, so you found another option.
[Laughter.] Well, I mean, especially if I think about being 18 and 19 years old going “I don’t like that song. Why would I cut shit I don’t like?” So thank god for spirit, because spirit gets you through. But you have to stand on your tiptoes, man … It’s gotta be the reason why I’m still sitting here talking to you.
I’m not gonna argue with that.