(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I have seldom seen people whose musical opinions I value hold such wildly differing opinions on a piece of recorded music as I have witnessed with Shelby Lynne’s new album of Dusty Springfield classics. Just a Little Lovin’ actually contains nine Springfield classics and a Lynne original, “Pretend,” that she wrote just for this work.
Obviously, Lynne knew that people would be intensely curious about such a tribute to one of music’s most-loved singers. Springfield was born as Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in London but grew up loving American jazz. With her pop-folk group the Springfields, she had an American hit with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and cut an album in Nashville, Folk Songs From the Hills, but her heart became devoted to soul music.
Dusty may have been British, but she made some of the greatest American pop music recordings ever. Her epochal 1969 album Dusty in Memphis remains an all-time great interpretation of bluesy Southern soul music and, if you haven’t heard it, I urge you to seek it out.
Doing some of Springfield’s best-known musical landmarks was akin to entering a field of landmines for Lynne.
You can envision Dusty in a gorgeous gown, belting these songs out with a tight orchestra for an elegant crowd at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room, with the lights and colors bright and warm and with martini glasses clinking together and the champagne flowing. Shelby would be wearing a black T-shirt and torn jeans and quietly singing these same songs in the dim recesses of a basement jazz grotto in the Village, with just a pianist, a guitarist, an upright bassist and a guy on brush and snare accompanying her.
Lynne’s album is one of the best-sounding pieces of music I have heard in quite a while, with superb production by Phil Ramone and engineering by Al Schmitt. The CD sounds as if you’re sitting in that jazz grotto, right next to the little bandstand, with the snare drum next to your ear and Lynne standing practically above you.
The nine Springfield re-creations on Just a Little Lovin’ are the same songs that Dusty sang but — my, oh, my — what different interpretations. I’m not sure that I have ever heard such totally opposite — yet equally effective — interpretations of the same songs. Lynne does the well-nigh impossible in making these mostly well-known songs entirely her own. Springfield’s originals are a taking-off point for Lynne with her recreations, and you don’t often hear that in any tribute recording. Where Springfield was often ebullient and bursting with optimism as in, say, the song “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Lynne is hesitant and reflective with the same lyrics.
She didn’t include Springfield’s best-known hit here probably for good reason. “Son of a Preacher Man” was Dusty at her sultriest and most seductive and perhaps most expressive, and it is a song that will be forever wedded to the Springfield sound.
Dusty fans are fiercely loyal to their doyenne. On the other hand, Shelby aficionados are split, I think, by the different phases of her career. She has been in a very real sense not served well by a music industry that clearly has not known what to do with her. She first charted a country album 19 years ago. Do you remember when she was singing for Tammy Wynette’s producer Billy Sherrill and doing duets with George Jones? Or when she cut a marvelous tribute to Bob Wills and western swing with the album Temptation? And then Mercury Records in New York decided she was a pop singer and not a country girl after all. Since then, Lynne has recorded a series of critically well-received albums that have gathered little other attention. She got a Grammy as best new artist after she had been recording for a decade, which she dryly noted in her acceptance speech.
Without equivocating or sitting on the fence, I have to say that I love both Lynne and Springfield and their versions of these same songs for many reasons. Springfield’s versions will always be the ones associated with memories of times in my life. Lynne’s appeal is to the pure music lover in me, who rejoices in a beautifully-sung piece of work, one that is chosen by the singer for all the right reasons. And a singer who knows exactly what she is doing.
Why should you care about all this? Because Springfield and Lynne are two of the best singers you will ever hear. I can hear Lynne finding herself in these songs. Both singers struggled with musical identities. Perhaps Lynne can successfully determine that her identity lies within herself, not with music industry executives and critics.