On a balmy Friday evening in mid-July, country music malcontent Shelby Lynne headlined a free outdoor concert in Central Park. The night attracted an odd mélange of listeners, even for New York. To my right, a middle-aged yuppy couple picked through Dean & Deluca salads. At left, a dreadlocked Caucasian danced a twirling dervish that sometimes fit the music but mostly did not.
Lynne moseyed up to the mic wearing a black baseball cap and a baggy John Lennon T-shirt, looking more like a convenience store clerk than a woman who won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2001. She opened with her upbeat ditty, "Go With It." Except she didn't go with it. She started the song over before the first verse ended, which set the night's mood somewhere just above jam session.
The singer, relentlessly casual in dress and demeanor, didn't seem to mind. The words on her baseball cap summed it up perfectly: "Suit Yourself." Suit Yourself also happens to be the title of her latest CD, a break from Nashville conventions with its spare arrangements and DIY, analog vibe. Lynne recorded most of the material in her home studio in Palm Springs, Calif., and includes bits of banter and other background noise on the finished product. It's a rambling, sometimes uneven but more often moving love letter of an album, like a homemade mix tape pieced together in the wee hours of the morning.
At 36, Lynne is an artist unapologetic in her stubbornness, defensive about her creative process, and reluctant to play the celebrity game with even a well-meaning listener like myself. When we spoke on the phone a few weeks after her SummerStage appearance, her tone remained far from friendly. She'd played the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, Calif., the night before, opening for Tom Petty before 14,000 fans.
But Lynne has a rep for not liking journalists much, perhaps because reporters keep including her troubled family history in newspaper stories like this one. Her father shot her mother -- and himself -- while the 17-year-old Lynne looked on. Lynne's little sister, Allison Moorer, went on to be a recording star in her own right.
Lynne, an Alabama native with roots in Virginia, admits that telephone interviews are a chore that mostly sucks. She will say that the press has been good to her at times. "I wouldn't be where I am today without the media and the favorable reviews and such," she says. "So I don't have any bitch with the media."
What she does have a bitch with is the recording industry, or at least that's implied by her rocky career trajectory. When she won the Grammy for I Am Shelby Lynne, she'd already put out six previous albums, had watched a couple of promising record deals turn sour and had toyed with everything from cowboy swing to Shania Twain pop. Subsequent releases further baffled critics and fans. Love, Shelby included "Killin' Kind," a song she wrote for Bridget Jones's Diary ("I hated the movie," Lynne told her Central Park audience). That album drifted more toward country-pop territory.
No wonder she looked so pissed on the cover of the follow-up, 2003's bare-bones and aptly named Identity Crisis. It also explains why she's now insistent on keeping control of her craft and her image, studio execs be damned. "It is a privilege to make records, it's true," Lynne says. "I want to make them to last forever. This is my ninth album, you know, and I've made albums in the past that will not last forever."
This fall, Lynne takes another unexpected turn with her appearance in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. She plays Cash's (Joaquin Phoenix) cotton-picking mother, complete with a bee-hive hairdo. "It was my real hair, believe it or not," she says, though she did sport a wig for some scenes.
Suit Yourself includes its own Cash tribute, "When Johnny Met June," a song Lynne wrote on the day Johnny died. "I really had nothing to do with it," she says. "Your hand just picks up the pen and inspiration comes through. I don't really think you can sit down and say to yourself, 'I'm going to write a great song right now.' It has to come from somewhere else."
Which might be another way to say that Lynne has learned to trust her instincts. There's no identity crisis on Suit Yourself -- nor is there any Bob Wills, Dixie Chicks or Reba McEntire. There's just the artist herself, along with a few good friends, the occasional clink of an ice cube in a cocktail glass and the snap of a tape recorder when the song ends.
In a last-ditch effort to end our conversation on a positive note, I attempt humor. I tell Lynne that my father follows her music, and he was jealous to hear that I'd seen her perform. Except Dad kept insisting that she was Loretta Lynn's daughter. (Never mind that extra "e.")
Shelby doesn't find my story amusing.
"That's part of what I'm saying that's frustrating," she says finally. "The press has so much power. People tend to believe everything they read. I've met Loretta once, so it would have been hard for her to give birth to me."
"But tell your dad I said thanks for listening."