Shelby strikes back

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- Shelby Lynne, hiding behind vintage sunglasses and a casual sneer, slumped back against a bus-stop bench on Sunset Boulevard and checked her cell phone 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. "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, Tenn., 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 Tuesday, 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."

On the bus bench, the singer 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.

The notion of the Springfield album came from, of all people, Barry Manilow, who lives near Lynne. The idea really took hold when she presented it to Phil Ramone, the producer who has won 14 Grammys for work with artists such as Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand and Paul Simon. Ramone brought in esteemed recording engineer Al Schmitt, and last January took Lynne into the historic Studio A at Capitol Records. All songs were recorded in live takes with no overdubs.

"You had to feel it to do this music, and I could feel it there," Lynne said. "Phil and Al let me pretend I was in control. That was nice of them. We cut the record the week Capitol Records busted up. So we're downstairs wondering why upstairs isn't coming down to check us out. Turns out there was no upstairs there."

Some artists would have panicked, but after stops at more than half a dozen labels, Lynne shrugged and looked for the next stop. She and her manager took the album to Lost Highway founder Luke Lewis, who eagerly took it off Capitol's hands.

Ramone, who had heard tales about Lynne, said she does have "a whiff of danger about her," but that her musical focus and talent are amazing. "I think this album shows a wide audience who she is and what she can do."

The album finds Lynne channeling familiar Springfield songs such as "The Look of Love" and an especially sparse rendition of "Anyone Who Had a Heart." The slow and airy arrangements manage to be aching and burnished. Lynne, with a hearty laugh, said the guiding motto was "from Jim Beam to Jobim."

Over Mexican food and margaritas, as promised, she loosens up and tells tales about her crush on George Strait, long phone calls with Willie Nelson and a bitter feud she has with a certain singer. Just before a deliciously ripe description of the backstage melodrama, Lynne, defying her own claim that she's not adept at the media game, leans over and clicks the tape recorder off. "This is just between us, mister."

After a few hours and a few more drinks, Lynne was back at her hotel, Le Parc, or, as she calls it, Le Dump. "I like it, though. There are no famous people here, and the bar stays open late." She was eager to listen to her new LPs and already worried about this article.

Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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