She Had Such High Hopes

Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

For the second or two that it takes for a presenter to read her name during the best new artist presentation at the Grammys on Wednesday, Shelby Lynne will be center stage in the pop world.

If she wins, the exposure will go well beyond the few minutes we'll watch her step onstage and accept the award. The victory could set in motion the events that might truly make her pop's latest Cinderella story.

With a Grammy in hand, her record label, Island/Def Jam, would renew its attempt to get radio programmers to play the challenging and confessional music in her latest album, "I Am Shelby Lynne."

The win would also encourage Lynne, 32, to go through another grueling round of interviews, TV shows and concerts--all in hopes of jump-starting sales, which, at about 162,000 copies, have lagged far behind her critical acclaim.

If she doesn't win best new artist, however, the commercial fight for "I Am Shelby Lynne" will end. She and the record company will turn their attention to her next album, hoping it will help her reach the wider audience that eluded this one.

On the eve of the Grammys, Lynne looked back on the ups and downs of 2000 with the same frankness that is a trademark of her music. For all the thrill of having her music hailed by peers and critics, there was also the deep frustration of not being able to reach a mass audience.

"There was a point [last year] where I was just so discouraged that I didn't think I could ever write a song again," Lynne, a Palm Springs resident now, says during a visit to Los Angeles with manager Betty Bottrell.

"I love my record. It was the proudest accomplishment in all my years of making records, but everything was such a struggle. . . . It was hard to work and work and work and not get your music played on the radio."

It was a struggle that once more tested the mettle of Lynne, who rebelled for years in Nashville against attempts to push her in a tepid pop-country direction. She got a reputation as a troublemaker and was largely written off by Nashville after she headed home to Alabama four years ago to make a record on her own terms.

Working with producer Bill Bottrell, who co-produced Sheryl Crow's debut album and is the ex-husband of Lynne's manager, the country maverick poured her soul into "I Am Shelby Lynne," a collection of dark, desperate songs about fighting for self-esteem after a relationship has soured. (Bottrell also has a Grammy nomination for producer of the year for his work on the album.)

Just as she found the strength to make that album, Lynne also battled through her depression to overcome the barriers to getting the album exposed.

She recalls, "I remember being at home with a fever, and I finally just got tired of feeling bad. I said [expletive] this. I'm getting back to work. I ended up writing three songs that day. . . . I learned a lot last year and I feel stronger. I'm looking to the future."

Here's a look at Lynne's "Cinderella" year:

January 2000. Lynne was restless. Her album had been finished for more than a year, and she wanted to see it in the stores. But Island/Def Jam had been reorganized during the consolidation of labels following Seagram's purchase of PolyGram in late 1998. Island/Def Jam Chairman Jim Caparro knew Lynne's album was special, but he also felt it wasn't an easy sell for radio. Rather than rush it out, he wanted a special marketing plan.

One step was the release of the album in England in the fall of 1999. Executives there were confident they could build a buzz, something that could help pre-sell the album to media and retailers in the U.S. And British critics did fall in love with the album. "From that unequivocal title and blue-eyed stare on its cover, [this is] an album that shouts its defiance," declared influential Q magazine.

Island sent advance copies of the album--along with the glowing reviews--to critics in this country. Magazines and newspapers began requesting interviews. Newsweek proclaimed, "Lynne blows off a half-baked country career with a soulful, bluesy, rapturous declaration of independence."

The album was finally released here Jan. 25. Lynne opened her promotional campaign that night with an appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

February. First-week sales of about 4,000 weren't enough to earn "I Am Shelby Lynne" a place on Billboard's top 100 sellers, but the singer was delighted.

"I didn't think it would sell that many," she says, looking back. "Man, it was encouraging to sell any at that point. Betty and I knew we would have to get on the road to sell it. We never fooled ourselves into thinking it would get played on the radio. The world's not into what I'm into with that record. It's too dark."

March. Lynne debuted her live show in the U.S. on March 17 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas--and the industry buzz heightened. After some dates in Europe, she and her band rehearsed for their first U.S. club tour. By the end of the month, weekly sales were still around the 4,000 mark.

April. After an April 5 guest spot on "The Late Show With David Letterman," Lynne launched an 18-city club tour that included a stop May 1 at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. In the show, she supplemented the album's tunes with a haunting version of John Lennon's "Mother," a tale of childhood abandonment that ranks as one of the most gripping recordings ever in rock.

The selection was especially moving because Lynne, as a teenager, saw her father shoot and kill her mother and then turn the gun on himself. It's a part of her history that came up in each of the dozens of interviews she did last year, and the emphasis on the subject sometimes worried her.

"I think a lot of people think that my parents' deaths is why I write such sad songs, but that's not true," she says. "Those songs may just be the woman I am."

May. Lynne continued doing interviews, sometimes four to five phoners a day, and she appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." But the strain was getting to her. She felt that she was doing all the work--via press and live shows--to sell the record. She had wanted a video since January, but the record label said it was too early.

Island/Def Jam's Caparro understood Lynne's frustration, but he defended the decision to hold back on a video. "We knew we couldn't take the traditional radio/video approach with this record," he said recently. "We knew that the key to building awareness was touring, advertising, press, retail promotion. We did everything we could and more. We took out ads in virtually every major publication in the country and bought spots on over 350 radio stations. The idea was build enough awareness and support that there would be a market for the video."

June-July. It was back on the road for Lynne, who did about a dozen more club dates. By July, Island was ready to shoot a video for the song "Gotta Get Back." By this time, the album's sales were slowing--down to about 2,500 a week.

August. Rather than continue headlining clubs, Lynne tried a different strategy. She opened for other acts, hoping to benefit from larger attendance at those shows. She opened a few concerts for Sting, including two at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and then hit the road with k.d. lang for more than a dozen shows. Island/Def Jam was finding little radio response to singles from the album or from TV for the video.

That's when the label suggested Lynne give them a new song, something more radio-friendly that they could take to programmers and, if it caught on, add to the album.

Lynne was offended. "I wouldn't do it," she says sharply. "I didn't want to cheapen the record by doing this. I bled all over this record and to put some kind of 'radio-friendly' song on it would be the opposite of everything I stand for."

Betty Bottrell said she understood the label's thinking. She realized it might be the last chance to save the album in the marketplace, but she supported Lynne's decision.

Caparro said the suggestion was simply realistic. "If we were going to accommodate radio, we needed a different song than any others that were on the album. But it was Shelby's decision. If she was prepared to do it, we would put the record out there. But she said no, and we accepted that."

September-October. Lynne continued doing interviews, and she opened a dozen or so shows for Matchbox Twenty, but she had pretty much given up on the album catching fire. She also vowed that she wouldn't be an opening act any longer. "You get 30 minutes if you're lucky, and it's not your crowd," she says. "You're onstage and you get the feeling that these people couldn't care less. I was an opening act for 10 years."

November-December. The campaign for "I Am Shelby Lynne" was pretty much over. Lynne did a few isolated dates, including a couple of radio-station Christmas parties, but she was waiting for the new year and the new album. For one thing, it's too expensive to keep touring. She says she spent a half-million dollars keeping the show on the road during the year. "I went further in debt than I was when I started," she says. "I don't want to do more shows until there is enough of an audience for me to start making money on the road."

Lynne did, however, start hearing the speculation about a Grammy nomination. There was so much support in the industry for the album that some were suggesting she could even get into the most prestigious category, album of the year.

"I met with so many radio programmers who say, 'I love Shelby's album, but I just can't play it,' " Betty Bottrell said. "It's hard to promote adult rock in a time of Britney Spears, Eminem and hip-hop."

Postscript. The speculation about Lynne's getting the best album nomination intensified when she was invited to join other artists to announce the Grammy nominations Jan. 3. But she only ended up with the best new artist nomination. Still, she was moved by the recognition.

"I worked for 13 years to get a Grammy nomination, so of course I'm thrilled," she says. "I know a win would help my career, but the nomination is vindication for me of my talent. I'd like to see this album get another chance, but if not, I'm ready to move on."

Added Caparro, "The Grammy nomination was fantastic. We're so happy for her. I think we repositioned Shelby with this record and repositioned a career. I'm very optimistic about her future."

Album sales of "I Am Shelby Lynne" to date: 162,105.

Number of Grammys: We'll know Wednesday.

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Lynne's Faves

Her prized albums:

John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band," 1970, Capitol. "I just love the fearlessness in the way he shared his thoughts, including the pain and the agony."

Chet Baker's "Chet Baker Sings," 1958, Riverside. "His voice was so wonderful, like an extension of the [distinctive] quality of his trumpet."

Hank Williams' "The Originals Singles Collection Plus," 1990, Polydor. "There is such simplicity . . . such plain truths in the music . . . so much innocence. It's hard to imagine he was just 29 when he died."

The Beatles' "Rubber Soul," 1965, Capitol. "You can feel a transition going on when you listen to that album, the sense they are moving from their early music to another level in their work. That really turned me on."

Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," 1965, Columbia. "Anything from that period really. You just couldn't believe someone could pack so many ideas into a song and touch on so many emotions so forcefully."

Her favorite performers:

Frank Sinatra. "He was so smooth and cocky. He just stood apart--like Mt. Rushmore or something."

Elvis Presley. "He had so much charisma. So sexy and sensual. And he put those qualities into his music. A remarkable package."

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