Shelby Lynne had already made five albums as a cog in Nashville's country music machine when she moved to Southern California and began work on the record that would become her breakthrough. Yet today the singer says she "didn't even know how to write" until she teamed with the producer Bill Bottrell, who encouraged her to explore her lifelong love of R&B and to examine her troubled childhood, including her father's murder of her mother when Lynne was 17.
The result of their collaboration, 1999's deeply soulful "I Am Shelby Lynne," earned rave reviews and led, in a bit of revisionist history that haunts the Recording Academy, to Lynne's winning the Grammy Award for best new artist — more than a decade after her debut came out. Now the album has been reissued in a 15th-anniversary package, part of a fresh deal with Rounder Records. (A studio disc is expected next year.) Her motorcycle boots propped on a table in front of her, Lynne, 46, discussed the record ahead of a Dec. 13 gig at McCabe's in Santa Monica.
Bonus tracks on deluxe reissues tend to be fairly useless. But "Bless the Fool" and "Sky Is Purple" are gorgeous.
That's why it took us a long time to decide what would make the original record. The B sides, though, have more of a bluegrass feel, and as I was making my departure from Nashville, I didn't want to go that acoustic. Also, "Sky Is Purple" is too sad. I didn't want that to be the emphasis of the whole damn record, which it turned out to be anyway — the dead parents. But that's OK.
The music is so centered. It suggests you and Bill knew what you were after.
We knew we wanted to make songs that stood the test of time. That's when you start listening to all your influences — from Al Green to Dusty Springfield to Hank Williams to Jimmy Webb to Bob Dylan — and you start figuring out why you love what you love. Then you start trying to be that good.
Why was Bill the guy to do it with?
I loved his work with Michael [Jackson] and Madonna and then Sheryl [Crow] and all that, where he was using country instruments in a pop production. I'm really big about not getting above your raising and about taking your roots with you no matter what kind of music you decide to do. So it was natural to be able to write what my life was. I just needed someone I could trust to help me craft my vision.
The album opens with a bang in the wall-of-sound intro to "Your Lies." But you look at the credits and it's clear this was a very small crew in the studio.
It was me and Bill and a bass player, and the bass player played the horn parts. We had a couple more guys who came in, but Bill played basically every instrument. I played guitar. There's nobody on there that's a virtuoso, you know? All you need is good songs. That's the country part of me. You don't have a record if you don't have real songs.
Had you listened to it much before you started preparing this reissue?
You know, it used to be a very painful record for me to listen to. Bill and I were living in a tumultuous time. His family was going through many changes; I was leaving a bad relationship and moving out here and the whole thing. I'm just now getting to where I can listen to it because it's finally on vinyl.
What did the album's warm reception mean to you?
Well, it was acceptance. I knew how good the record was — I knew after we'd cut half of it. But it was nice. It got me out of the box.
And yet the industry still seemed confused over how to market your music.
After we won the Grammy the record label [Island Def Jam] said they weren't going to spend another dime promoting it, which just said to me that you don't want me anymore and you're quitting. That's when commerce starts messing with the art. But, I mean, one of the problems with me is I switch genres whenever I want to.
You made your next record, 2001's "Love, Shelby," with Glen Ballard, widely known at the time for his work with Alanis Morissette.
It was kind of like a pop escape. It wasn't the best idea in the world, but they weren't going to do anything else with "I Am," so what was I supposed to do?
"Love, Shelby" isn't easy to hear now unless you have a copy on CD. You can't find it on iTunes or Spotify.
I own [the master recordings]. I'm going to put it out again sometime. I don't know when, but Glen and I will get together and do something with it.
The jumping around you were doing — it's a familiar approach for a singer today. But you were maybe 10 years ahead of the curve.
Of course! I'm still making records that people don't understand. That's what I wanted. I'm discovering stuff about myself every day, so how could it be the same thing over and over and over again?
You eventually formed your own label, Everso, to release your records, including a Christmas album and last year's gospel-inspired "Thanks."
Whatever the records are, they were me at the time. And I'm proud of them. There's a lot of DIY in there, and that's out of necessity.
But now you've signed with a new label, which surprised me. I might've thought you'd be afraid of getting burned again.
Oh, I am afraid. You kidding? This is the record business, not the artist business.