An Eccentric and Passionate Singer: Shelby Lynne and her album I Can’t Imagine

By Daniel Garrett

Shelby Lynne, I Can’t Imagine
Rounder Records, 2015

Sometimes Shelby Lynne, a musician and visual artist, speaks as if there is a great deal to say but she is not sure whether she can find the precise word or whether her listener will understand: she can sound as if she is arriving from a very private place.  Honest, eccentric.  When talking with her sister singer Allison Moorer for the online site Innocent Words (May 1, 2015), the singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne said, “I took more time writing this record than the others, maybe because I had time.  Imagery is the most important to me when singing stories.  I try to paint pictures with the words and decorate with little to no singing….let the song do the work.”  Little to no singing?  Does that mean that the song’s lyric and musical structure, as delivered by a plain voice and instruments, would do the work?  It was an interesting exchange, one in which Lynne spoke about the constant hum of creation, of letting the songs develop, almost shaping themselves, and the significance of place and mood, and the value of surprise.  “I’m country…so I talk country…and I figure if anyone can understand what I’m saying with all my jive talk and slang slinging, they must be in for the hang…cool,” Lynne said of her rapport with collaborating musicians.

“I threw the colors down in a fit of rage / my feelings hardly fit onto the page,” sings Shelby Lynne in “Paper Van Gogh,” a song of memory and muse, of transforming misery into colors, into redemptive art, the first song on I Can’t Imagine, Lynne’s album of ten songs recorded in Louisiana at Dockside Studios in the town of Maurice, with guitarists Ben Peeler and Pete Donnelly, drummer Michael Jerome, and bassist Ed Maxwell.  Shelby Lynne’s voice is low, mellow, and tough, as she conveys lyrics of passion and creativity—and yet this artist, who balances honesty with privacy, and looseness with self-consciousness, discloses few secrets.  “Oh lessons been passed down through the ages,” Lynne sings, suggestion without an explicit declaration of particulars.  One hears pain and pride in Shelby Lynne’s voice—one is both afraid for her, and emboldened by her; and she is, no doubt, one of the best singers of her generation; and yet Lynne, despite her talent and possibly due to her eccentricities, has failed to win as large an audience as she deserves.

A letter, a request to return home, received by someone “making memories in the wrong place” is the motivating event in “Back Door Front Porch,” and the narrator returns in her mind to the old home place.  It is hard to know where “Sold the Devil (Sunshine)” takes place, although it does seem a tribute to nature and love, with its references to seas, gravity, and descriptions of people arm in arm—a rare happiness and peace seems to have been achieved.  A return to the mundane seems the point of the downbeat “Son of a Gun,” a song of memory, despair, and hope, in which Lynne as a Great Depression migrant worker narrator declares, “I’m just a son of a son of gun / looking for a home where the west was one.”  Lynne implies in her singing a complexity, strength, and torment beyond the lyrics.

“Down Home” is a song about same-sex love and social prejudice in the life of a young person, with thrashing rock music.  “Love is Strong” is an affirmation of love, a repudiation of doubt, in which the singer claims to feel newly born; and it is country music with a little of the blues, with a simplicity both repetitive and attractive.  The lyrics of “Better,” about the end of a relationship, are fragments: brief observations, descriptions of mood—of distance and echoing sound, of madness and need and yet a solitude that might prove sustaining if it can be accepted; and the music still has warmth (and there is a male voice singing along with Lynne—which suggests agreement if not reconciliation).  The confident and spirited song “Be in the Now” is a reminder to move beyond the clouds and storms of life.  “Following You” could be about a parent and child, or a teacher and student, but it seems to be about spiritual devotion (Lynne has said that it’s a memory of her following her father when she was eleven years old); and the song has a melancholy tenderness, as it balances fact and faith.  The song “I Can’t Imagine,” featuring voice and guitar, is about the difficult of understanding what someone else is feeling.

On Shelby Lynne’s album I Can’t Imagine, these two commentaries from Paste and American Songwriter: “Throughout her multi-decade-long career, Grammy-winning Lynne has combined eras, influences and genres to create a sound familiar, yet unique.  Imagine continues in that tradition.  ‘I Can’t Explain,’ with its steel guitar puddles and elegant rhythms, is Nashville classic, without becoming sodden.  The folkie ‘Back Porch Front Door’ is a minimalist R&B confession,” wrote Holly Gleason of Paste magazine (May 11, 2015), noting the album’s perceived influences (Neil Young, Muscle Shoals, Bobbie Gentry, Petula Clark, and Dusty Springfield).  Shelby Lynne’s qualities—an amalgam of inheritance, influences, intuition, initiative, and innovation—are what make her unique, both recognizable and startling.  “Still, it’s the pure Dusty Springfield soul of ‘Sold the Devil (Sunshine)’ and the slinky swamp of ‘Be in the Now’ that finds Lynne at her loosest and most natural.  A few more tunes in this vein would be welcome, but everything here captures the classy, sometimes sassy and always heartfelt essence that makes Shelby Lynne one of her generation’s most passionate and determined voices,” conclude Hal Horowitz in American Songwriter(May 5, 2015).  It’s nice to have one’s own perceptions confirmed.

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Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: or