Shelby Lynne’s appearance at Los Angeles' Silent Movie Theatre earlier this week was prefaced with the screening of a short film about the making of her latest album, Revelation Road. The camera pulled back from showing Lynne tapping out lyrics on her desktop in one scene to linger on the best new artist Grammy she won in 2001. In a narration-free documentary, that’s a quick and easy way to establish that the Southern expat we’re watching humbly craft a DIY project in her home studio is Big Stuff. Inadvertently, maybe, it also reminds us that honors can be albatrosses.
“The biggest challenge is the continual not wanting to get discouraged,” she told interviewer Geoff Boucher, the former “Hero Worship”-er, in an onstage interview after her set. But “I’ve never believed that I made music for the masses,” she added. “I always thought it was probably too personal.” That might have come as a surprise to the major labels that were trying to make her into the next big thing 10 or 12 years ago, but maybe her love-it-or-leave-it accent and attitude should have been tip-offs.
Revelation Road is a pretty terrific example of the proverbial road less taken. It’s the culmination of the austerity path Lynne has been on ever since her most “produced” album, Love, Shelby, flopped in 2001 in the wake of the big, deserved NARAS endorsement. (As she told Boucher: “The biggest lesson in producing records is the number one rule: Do not produce.”) In the later 2000s she signed with another couple of majors that were open to her being less of a rocker and working with increasingly acoustic backup. But now she’s a label of one and band of one. Given how much of her music has been about lonesomeness, the solitary instrumental and business model suits her.
And these are tunes well worth a revisit. Lynne has tended to focus almost exclusively on the vagaries of love in her songwriting, with occasional dips into her Southern background on earlier songs like “Where I’m From.” But for this, she departed somewhat from form and “went way back to Alabama and my childhood when I wrote these songs,” as she explained at the Silent Movie on Tuesday night. Two especially remarkable songs came out of that, both of which she performed in her brief set. One, “I’ll Hold Your Head,” is about singing three-part harmony in the car with her sister, the also-celebrated Allison Moorer, and their mother, and the key change as it glides from sweet verses to a bittersweet chorus can instinctually break your heart even if you don’t know the family’s tragic history.
The other standout, “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” is an astonishingly sympathetic number written from the point of view of her late father as he prepares to kill her mother and herself and leave the two girls orphans. “I had a daddy that had so many demons, he couldn’t be here. And I wrote a song about it, 26 years later,” she said by way of introducing it. Given that she has a tendency to “kind of keep it close to the vest,” as she put it, even on less traumatic topics, this song couldn’t have come as a greater surprise. “The whole subject matter was always, ‘Who wants to write a song about that?’” she told Boucher. But “sometimes when it’s time to really get down in there to the stuff that you’re tired of holding in, something forces itself out to be written about. And it immediately came in daddy’s voice as a first person thing, and I just started immediately filling in the blanks.”
She might have gotten her Grammy at the wrong time. As Road proves to a degree not established even by previous breakthroughs like I Am Shelby Lynne, she has one of the most authentic voices -- literally and figuratively -- in all of American music.
And so it’s easy to forgive her for not being a great businesswoman, or even for putting on a show as haphazard and curious as the one at the Silent Movie. It was billed as a public performance and Q&A in which patrons would get a boxed set and meet-n-greet cocktail party, and tickets were initially sold at $100, then reduced to $40 (not a bad deal, considering that the set itself sells on Amazon for more than that). But it was introduced as a party to celebrate her label, Everso, and her performance lasted for a shockingly short six songs (all from Revelation Road). She then brought out Boucher, squatted on stage, and submitted—rather reluctantly, from her joking (“Give it your best shot…You can ask me whatever you like. I’m not gonna do this but once”) -- to 12 minutes of the EW writer’s questions before announcing, “Let’s drink.” If you want to see a longer set, you apparently have to travel out to Riverside this weekend to see her open for the Mavericks.
But a half-hour of Lynne stretching into the soul’s deepest reaches -- or indulging in some childhood nostalgia, which she said is a good thing “if you can live with it” -- beats three hours in almost any other singer’s presence. And having that boxed set to take home did leave fans with all the Shelby that’s fit to imprint.