Nashville didn’t know what to make of Shelby Lynne in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with her bold attitude, chameleon appearance and broad definition of country music. That didn’t matter to the pop world, who flipped for the soulful breakthrough, I Am Shelby Lynne, in 1999. She even won a Grammy in 2000 — for best new artist.
Her musical evolution continues on Suit Yourself — laid back, homegrown and happily imperfect. She recorded some of the lead vocals at her home studio in Palm Springs, Calif., but filled out the project at Brian “Brain” Harrison’s house in Nashville, where every room doubled as a separate studio booth. Here, she explains the logic behind her harmonies, why she admires Dolly Parton and how cornbread and iced tea can equal love.
CMT: When did you first hear about Brain’s house?
Lynne: Well, he and my drummer Brian Owings have been friends for 20 years. They’re both from Mississippi. Just buds, you know. Owings had been telling me about Brain for the whole last tour and ever since we’ve known each other. I hadn’t been back to Nashville [long] enough to meet the guy. So the first night we finally went over, it was really late. I guess it was midnight or something. We were pretty tight. I walked into the house, and it just had the vibe. I said, “Hell, let’s play something.” So he turned everything on, and at that moment, I wrote “I Cry Everyday.” I knew that was where we needed to make the record.
After playing the whole record a few times, I listened to “I Cry Everyday” with my headphones on and suddenly noticed all kinds of things I hadn’t heard before.
Background noise? Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of noise on this record because I’m not that picky about that kind of stuff. I feel like the more real you can make it, the better record you’ll have — as long as it’s not obnoxious or cutesy in any way. What you’re hearing in the background is my manager and my publicist going, “Yap yap yap yap yap yap,” from having too much wine! (laughs) It was a good vocal and a good first take, so I decided to keep it. I’m always for that emotional vibe instead of the perfect vibe. If there’s anything I hate, it’s perfect.
Did you immediately put the background vocals on there, too?
I think I did those the next night. The way I mixed the record, everything vocal-wise is on the same level. I wanted all of the harmony parts to be on the same level as the lead part. They all sounded like lead parts, so we recorded it that way because it’s unique. I’ve never heard anything where all the harmony parts were as loud as the lead vocal. It’s just a different way.
Did you think about bringing in someone else to do background vocals?
No, I didn’t. I’ve done that before, but it’s usually better if I just do it. … I’m not saying I won’t use other people, but I’m usually too impatient to wait. I can do it on the spot.
Do you keep tabs on what’s going on in country music in Nashville these days?
No, I don’t.
When you were here, you had a hard time breaking through. Do you have a theory about why you couldn’t get a hit song back in those days?
I think the theory is that I’m a little too much on the left side of things to have had that happen. I don’t believe in cutting a song because it’s a hit song. I like to make great albums. I didn’t fit in the whole cookie-cutter thing there. It’s just not my bag. To each his own, but it just wasn’t for me. I’m too much of an outlaw to fit in a perfect little box. I like rules that are broken.
What are some of the differences between making records back then — and now?
I write the songs now, first off. That’s a big difference. And I’m not worried about having hit records. It’s too grueling — and too much a waste of my time — to think about trying to get on the radio. That’s ridiculous! That’s not what I do! I’m a singer. I write songs, play a little guitar and I know what I like to hear. The difference is, I do what I want to do now. I don’t have the drudgery or the pressure of having to get something on the radio. That’s ridiculous. It is for me anyway.
Do you want to have a hit record though?
Sure, I’d love to have one. But I don’t see why what I’m writing couldn’t be a hit record. It’s just a change of conditioning and the way people hear things. I’m not going to change what I do in order to get one.
I read that you and Willie Nelson recorded a bunch of songs together. What do they sound like?
It was so long ago. We met in ’90, I think. We got together and recorded. Hell, I keep hoping that maybe we’ll put that out one day. It’s standards. Just old songs, like classic standard songs. We called it jazzabilly. We cut everything from “Misty” to “Crazy.” Maybe one day we’ll get to see it out. I hope so.
What kind of presence does Willie Nelson have in your day-to-day life?
It’s not like we talk every week or anything. When we get together, it’s just like the last time. We appreciate that in each other’s relationship: that we can keep it where it is when we left off. That’s truly what a great friend should be anyway.
You play Johnny Cash’s mother in the movie of his life that’s coming out later this year. Have you seen the final version yet?
No, I haven’t. I’ve seen little clips. Should be good. It’s a good script. I had a good time making that movie.
You were also on the Dolly Parton tribute album that came out in 2003. Why did you want to do that?
Well, they asked me and I thought, “What an honor.” Dolly’s one of the pioneers of women in songwriting and having class and being successful at writing her own songs, as well as being a great star and a great singer. I think Dolly’s the greatest star in the business, of all time. She’s got it all — the talent, the look, the personality, the sense of humor, the drive. She’s everything I would ever want to be.
I know you don’t like to talk specifics about songwriting, but I wanted to ask you one thing about it. Is there a sort of sensation you feel when you know a song is about to pour out of you? Do you know when it’s coming?
Yeah, I usually do. That’s a good question. I definitely know when I have it. You just know. I know when to leave it alone and stop, too. Since I’ve been writing songs, I know when it’s done.
Have you ever tried to force it?
Nah. It’s not worth it. I’d rather have nothing than a pile of s**t. You know what I mean?
One of my favorite lyrics on here is, “You’re the cornbread and iced tea of life.” That’s about the best compliment you can give somebody.
I think so too, man! (laughs) That’s a love song. That’s the way I was feeling about somebody at the time. … I was just trying to think, “What’s the most perfect way to compliment someone and give you some imagery at the same time?” And I thought, “Hell, a glass of sweet tea and a piece of cornbread right now would be pretty good.” That’s it! “You’re the cornbread and iced tea of life.” That’s pretty important to me.
Do you miss the Southern cooking, or can you get it in California?
Oh, I cook my own! But, yeah, I miss it. I like everything about the South, except when it gets down to a few issues. But I love it. I just take my South wherever I go. … I’m a Southerner and I will always be. A lot of Southerners try to change where they’re from. Hell, I’m proud of it. I love being from the South. It’s who I am.
You’re in the middle of rehearsals for your upcoming tour. What will your tour be like this time around?
Well, we’re just going to rock. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna do this album. We’ll do the last album. We’ll do things off the last two or three albums. Throw some covers in there. It’s going to be the drummer from the record and the bass player from the record — Brian and Brain — and I hired this guy, Ben, who’s a guitarist and steel player. It will be fun. I can’t wait. I’m ready to go.