Shelby Lynne on Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Landmark ‘I Am…’ Record, and Plotting a New Album With Karen Fairchild: ‘It’s Coming Full Circle’

She is still Shelby Lynne. That may sound like it’s saying it’s a little, but it’s really saying a lot, for anyone who holds a special place for the landmark album “I Am Shelby Lynne,” a turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece that put its bearer on the artistic map for good. That record is now having its silver anniversary celebrated with re-released vinyl and digital edition. Perhaps the even greater cause for celebration is that Lynne has new music due this year, letting us further into who she is and who she will be, with a little help from some friends in the Nashville community she’s moved back to for the first time since the 1990s. Now, as then, heartache will be in the grooves, which can only be a good thing for listeners.

The Bill Bottrell-produced “I Am Shelby Lynne” was the force of nature that propelled Lynne toward the best new artist Grammy in 2001 — a source of some controversy, or perhaps amusement, among Grammy-watchers, who still recall that her newbie honor came as she was releasing her sixth album, about a decade into a recording career. But spiritually, if not statistically, it felt right: “I Am…” was the album with which she became born again, after a promising career in mainstream country music that wasn’t nearly encompassing all she was capable of as someone who straddled pop, rock and old-school R&B as well as Americana. It established her as a singer’s singer, as well as a bold writer in her own right.

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Although she continued to release music independently up through 2021, it’d been a while since she had a high-profile release, and Lynne says that, without bitterness, she thought her recording career might be more or less behind her. That changed in the last year when Karen Fairchild, of Little Big Town fame, took to co-writing and co-producing a new album for her that she became so enthralled with, she has taken on a managerial role for Lynne as well. Before we move on to a Q&A with Lynne about matters both historic and new, here’s what Fairchild had to tell us about their recent collaborating:

“Shelby and I became friends via Ashley Monroe [another critically acclaimed edge-of-country outlier]. Ashley and I were writing together a lot, and she was like, ‘You know who I’m writing with? Do you remember Shelby Lynne?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God! I would love to write with her.’ But, you know, she’s an intimidating creature,” laughs Fairchild. “I walked in the door, and Shelby just has that Alabama, Southern drawl, and she was like, ‘Hey sis, I’ve been watching you for a long time,’ and gave me a big hug. And I think we wrote three songs that day, she and Ashley and I; we just hit it off. And we convinced her to make a record as well as to re-release ‘I Am Shelby Lynne.’ We start sharing new music very soon, like in the next month.”‘.”

The Little Big Town singer says she wasn’t looking to move into a manager’s job. “It was just out of, honestly, necessity,” Fairchild says. “I feel a little bit like a gatekeeper for her, and I want to make sure that she’s taken care of, and celebrated. So she’s letting me do it. Or we’re doing it together, just seeing what happens next. Whatever she wants to do, we’ll just do, following her lead.” Fairchild adds that she’s stricken with Lynne’s creativity in all areas. “She paints. She writes poem cards. She whittled me something one day and I was like, ‘When did you do this?’ And she goes, ‘Over the weekend. I just wanted you to have something for your beach house.’ Nobody’s ever whittled me anything. But, her and her sister Allison (Moorer), it just flows out of them all the time. She’s very inspiring and in a great place in her life, and I cannot wait for people to celebrate her and hear this new music.”

And, without further ado, this is Shelby Lynne:

Can you talk about the basics of how you got started on new music with Karen Fairchild?

Well, it’s true about coming full circle. Sometimes I can’t even really believe it, because it has been 25 years since I decided to leave Nashville and pursue other ways of making music. I stayed in California for 24 years, and I really had no plans to make records at all. I just wanted to come back to Nashville and be quiet and be near my sister (Allison Moorer) and write songs — which I’ve always done, but I had never really written songs for other people, as just a songwriter. And then, you know what they say about making plans: Don’t do that. So Karen and I became friends through Ashley Monroe and my longtime friend Waylon Payne, and we just started a conversation about my making a new record, which was not even on my agenda. She took charge of things, and she called Katie (McCartney) over at Monument. Seriously, I was never looking for a record deal. I’ve been making records by myself for 20 years, in my living room or whatnot in California, just really keeping the lowdown. And here we are. This wasn’t my plan, but I am going on the path that’s in front of me. I just immediately loved (Fairchild) and trusted her. It was like we were old-time friends, so I guess we’re in business together, and it’s a good thing.

The fact that you’re working out of Nashville now, and that you’re with a Nashville-affiliated label, and you have a country star working with you — would that mean in any way that it’s more of a shift back toward what people understand as country, or is that stretching it?

You mean the music? I’m not sure that even matters, anymore. I mean, it’s a completely different world than it was when I first started out, even 25 years ago, I believe. Genres are still the same, but there’s also a lot of flow-over with music. I’m really unable to describe my own new album other than anything other than the truth, and exactly what I feel. That’s all I can say about it right now, because I just really am trying to absorb it myself. But you know that I write what I know, which is what I feel in my soul. And there’s an album coming up with a lot of that.

And everything on it is written and produced with the same team?

Yes. Karen, Ashley and Gena (Johnson) and I are the producers of my latest record. We just decided to share everything four ways. We feel like a unit and act as a unit, and I could not be happier.

shelby lynne karen fairchild monument records signing album record deal interview i am reissue
L-R: Katie McCartney of Monument Records, Shelby Lynne, producer/writer/manager Karen Fairchild, and Shane McAnally of Monument announce Lynne signing with the label.

How did you feel about moving back to Nashville? When you decamped for California all those years ago, it seemed like you had a “no hard feelings” attitude, but clearly you don’t associate that city with the most fruitful part of your career that followed, from “I Am Shelby Lynne” forward.

Well, I was glad to get back to the South. I love and adore California, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not 30 anymore, and I wanted to be closer to Allison and her baby, my nephew. I just had spent so many years too far away from Sissy, and I really was getting beckoned in my soul to come back home. Not that Nashville is what I would consider home-home, but in my heart it is, because it’s where I am and it’s where she is. And I walked back into Nashville into a community that didn’t exist when I left in ’98. When I decided to come back, I just wanted to settle into a little place and be real quiet and try to find some people to write some songs with. And then through those months of doing that, it just kinda came clear that it was making itself, the record. Nashville has changed, as we all know. My God, it’s a metropolis now. And the business, of course, we all know that has changed. But I don’t even think it even matters what kind of music we do anymore, as long as it’s honest and people know the damn truth. That’s what I’m interested in, being honest and looking for people to relate to the truth of mine that’s also there.

It’s been great to see you and Allison supporting each other in recent years, including but not limited to your duo project about seven years ago.

I’m really proud of Sissy and everything that she does. And, hell yeah, we support each other. We try to have coffee every day, which makes it even more wonderful. I’m so grateful that I moved back here. Nashville traffic’s just as bad as L.A., but that’s okay.

It’s not included in the “I Am Shelby Lynne” re-release, but 25 years ago, you had a B-side to a one of the single you had out then, called “Miss You Sissy.” It seemed to describe levels of distance between you as sisters. How do you feel, thinking back on that song now?

“Miss You Sissy” is very important to me. I wrote that with Bill Bottrell when I was missing her terribly and we hadn’t spent that much time together during those years. It’s a mournful tune, but now it’s a celebratory tune because we can sing it together. You know, it’s funny how time changes your heart’s mind. So we still have that song to remind us at times that we weren’t together that often. I’m proud of it, still, and I kind of tear up when I sing it now.

To talk about that album: First of all, there’s the trivia question I always face, just for myself, of whether “I Am Shelby Lynne” is one of the best albums of the 20th century or one of the best of the 21st century. That’s because of the staggered release dates in different territories.

Yeah. It’s weird. I don’t know — I believe the Grammy says it’s for the year 2000, but the record, as we know, came out in the U.K. first. [It was released in England in April 1999 and not in the U.S. until the start of the following year.]

It’s funny that a record that just barely squeaked into 2000 by an inch can still figures heavily in 21st century listmaking. Not much has surpassed it since then.

Thank you. Well, I have to tell you, it was momentous for me. Bill Bottrell [then most famous for his work on Sheryl Crow’s “Tuesday Night Music Club”] taught me pretty much everything I know about studios and writing songs. And it was a difficult record to make, and it was a joyous record to make. It was a tumultuous, emotional time for everyone involved — me, Bill, his wife, Betty, their children, everyone. My relationship… everything was in arrears. I think that’s probably why it’s so painfully good to hear, because it touches on places that we’ve all been. And then of course I had my Alabama stuff in there that was so close to my heart, and I had always wondered, how could I write about my story? How can I write what I feel? Bill showed me tips on how to do that, and so I have to credit him for most of the beauty of the record, and the teaching he did for me. He’s really one of the best producers I ever worked with, if not the best.

You hadn’t been known as a writer up till then. Did you feel like you were a thwarted songwriter throughout the five albums you made leading up to that? Or was it really kind of a dawning realization?

I needed to write, but I just never considered it, because it was always, “You’re a singer, you’re a singer. I’m a singer, I’m a singer.” But I should have figured out earlier that it wasn’t working for me and I needed to be writing my songs. I just didn’t know it was in me. I fooled around with it on my fourth record and my fifth record (1993’s “Temptation” and 1995’s “Restless”). By the time I got around to doing “I Am,” I knew I had to write because at that point I really did have a lot to say, and I was about 30 years old and ready to say it. It was Danny Goldberg, actually, during that time when there was still a Mercury Records (who helped). At the time they were distributing my independent record-label records, and I just told ’em, “I don’t wanna make more records in Nashville right now. I’ve made five. The shit ain’t working, so I want y’all to take me to New York to Danny and put me on that label. Because that way we can just kinda do some kind of merging or whatever. Y’all can figure that out.” And I met with Danny and he said, “Go write some songs. You’ve got a lot of something to say,” and I went back to Nashville and started putting pen to paper. “Leaving” was the first thing I wrote. Around that time I started looking for Bill Bottrell and I found him, and by the next year we were writing songs in Mendocino for “I Am.”

When I interviewed you back in ‘99 or 2000, you talked about maybe how on your earlier records you had a very kind of full-throated singing style previously, because that was what was kind of expected out of the type of records you were making in Nashville.


Hollering. OK. That’s a good term. So there must have been a period of transition there where you sort of fell into your natural voice.

You know, you are right. I mean, it was a bunch of hollering. It’s hard to listen to. I don’t think early on I had even come close to finding what I wanted my voice to feel and sound like, because you don’t know until you hit on it and you go, “Oh, OK, I can listen to that.” There’s lots of reasons why we sound like we sound, especially when we’re young, because we don’t know anything. Although “I Am” is the record. I was starting to find my voice on “Temptation,” because I was in love with the music; that was my big band record. (Following that) on the fifth record, I was easing more into finding my voice, because I was still swinging a little bit on that. So I have to (ascribe it to) swinging and listening to the great singers that I immersed myself in, like the Ella Fitzgeralds and the jazz singers that I love so much and Sinatra. And then I started settling down, and Bill helped me with that too. He’s like, “You sound great, but sing soft, and play when you sing.” I finally had made a record that I like to listen to. Yeah, it’s a big deal, when you find yourself.

A few years later, you would record a Dusty Springfield tribute album, “Just a Little Lovin’,” where the Dusty connection would be crystal clear. But we hear some of it in “I Am Shelby Lynne,” and you’ve said you had picked up “Dusty in Memphis” some time in the ‘90s. Did you feel like that was a big influence on “I Am Shelby Lynne”?

No. No.

Not at all? OK.

Everybody picked up on thinking it was an influence, but it was the press that ran off with Dusty, not me. I love Dusty — don’t get me wrong, that’s not the issue. It’s just that that record’s iconic, as far as that fucking bluesy R&B; great songs; oh my God, the string arrangements, the personnel, the band, everything. Jerry Wexler? Gimme a break. So, that brilliant album, there was no way I could ever even compare myself to something so brilliant. I was grateful, but I was always like, don’t compare. Don’t compare. So when I did the Dusty album, I had a mission, and that was to appreciate the original and make it my own.

The songwriting was very revealing, in not just a craftsperson way.

I’ve always been pretty honest with my songwriting, because I don’t really feel like there’s any sense in doing it if you’re not going to talk about what’s happening, because write what we feel and know so we can share it. And getting with Bill and writing the songs was not only an education for me, but made it OK to reveal myself. That’s what “Where I’m From” is, and “Black Light Blue” is, and “Your Lies.” I had just come out of a ridiculous, heartbreaking relationship that I up and left California for. So it was more heartbreak, which is “Your Lies”… Every song is so real and happened to me. I just really believe now more than ever that there’s a responsibility as a songwriter, and it’s to tell the damn truth about what’s happening.

Not every song on it is a breakup song, but it’s one of the great breakup albums, or at least one I’ve returned to at different points in my life when I want to feel some of those things amplified in music.

Oh my God. Wait till you hear this one. It’s more of a heartbreaker, because I’ve been through it again. I’m never fucking falling in love again. You can print that.

Do you have a favorite song on “I Am Shelby Lynne”?

You know, I’m close to all of them, man. But I think my favorite is “Looking Up.” It’s just to me a great country song.

I’ve always been partial to “Your Lies,” as an album starter, because it just comes out of the gate like you’re joining a story already in progress, or a car that’s already running down the road, with interesting chord changes at the same time. Even though it’s not the most characteristic song on the album.

Hey, I love it too. The other day, Katie from Monument called me and said, “Is it OK if we release these videos that you made that were never out?” And I said, “Oh, hell yeah. It’s been almost 30 years, you can do whatever you want.” And I hadn’t seen it since, but we made a video when I was over in London for “Your Lies,” and I shit-canned it. I think it’s up now. I don’t know. I’m just thinking, you know, time passes and you feel so much different 25 years later. It’s kind of fun to see everything again and still have interest in this cool record I made that put me on the map. It’s pretty awesome.

People have asked you a million times about the best new artist thing. Sometimes artists feel like that’s an albatross or something, but it’s got to be a good albatross to have compared to the alternative of not having the recognition.

You mean the new artist Grammy? The albatross… True. You know what, I’ve never even thought about it like that. I know people say that about that. It’s still funny to me that people remember that little few seconds of words I said that night at the Grammys, because I was not a new artist and I think it threw a monkey wrench in those Grammys. I was already an (established) artist by then. I don’t know how they deal with that now. I wonder, and I’ve laughed sometimes, if they run into difficulties with it.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 21:   Musician Shelby Lynne attends the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards on February 21, 2001 at The Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Musician Shelby Lynne attends the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards on February 21, 2001 at The Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

They seem to change the rules about the new artist eligibility requirements about every other year.

Oh, they do?

This year it came up with Victoria Monet, who has been releasing music since 2014. But as long as you haven’t “come to prominence,” or previously been nominated for anything, that’s OK.

Oh my God. OK.

Anyway, in 2024, between a re-release and a new album, it’s looking like a pretty good two-fer for you this year.

I’m excited and I certainly did not expect to be doing this right now, so here we go.

You certainly had not been feeling very careerist about things in the last few years, from the way you describe it.

No, no, no, no, I haven’t. You know, I’ve always made music and written songs, but I thought it was over, so I didn’t know that I would even be making records anymore. I mean, I don’t mean I thought it was over in a bad way. I’m just thinking that time passes on, and you wind up where you are supposed to be… I think. I hope. So that’s kind of what I’m doing — just letting the road lay itself out for me to follow, and just kind of chill.

The digital edition of “I Am Shelby Lynne” is out now, and the vinyl editions come out July 10.

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