Isn’t it time Shelby Lynne had her Nick of Time moment? Similar to Bonnie Raitt in 1989, Lynne is a soulful singer with a devoted following, but limited commercial prospects or clout, needing a real deus ex machina event to propel her up the charts and into people’s living rooms (or earbuds, nowadays).
In Raitt’s case, her Hand O’ the Almighty was beating Petty, Henley, and the Dylan/Harrison/Orbison/Petty Wilbury hydra for the Album of the Year Grammy. I was working at my college radio station at the time, and we’d received 8 or 10 copies of Nick of Time when it was released. Couldn’t give ’em away. Literally.
The phone lines are open. First caller who can tell me what day it is this Wednesday morning wins the new Bonnie Raitt record.
[Phone lines do not light up. Not a one.]
Now, that could’ve been because no one listened to our station, particularly when I was on the air (the line between possibility and probability is thin, indeed), but you get the point. Interest in the record was soft.
After Raitt’s Grammy bonanza (three trophies and a smokin’ broadcast performance of ”Thing Called Love”), however, the lines lit up with requests, and the backlog of giveaway copies (minus one, gifted to me by the station’s music director) was distributed accordingly.
Shelby Lynne had her own Grammy moment years ago, taking Best New Artist in 2001, for the wonderful I Am Shelby Lynne (which was her sixth record in a then decade-long career, proving those in charge of Grammy nominations could not count years or album discography entries, or, for that matter, follow their own nominating rules). But the effect wasn’t the same as Raitt’s, and Lynne squandered a good portion of whatever new audience she reaped with a disappointing follow-up (Love, Shelby. Shoulda been called Eat Shit, Glen Ballard). Subsequent records have been fine but low-key—quiet, soulful affairs like 2005’s Suit Yourself—falling on the appreciative ears of a relative few.
Perhaps Lynne’s new one, I Can’t Imagine (Rounder), will reach a broader swath of those with discerning tastes. Recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana (population 642, all of them gator wrasslers or Neville Brothers sidemen), I Can’t Imagine has that slinky, sweaty feel that can only be coaxed out of throats and fingers where the air is warm and heavy with humidity and the scent of something swampy nearby. While the feel is Southern, the songs cannot be tied to any one location; it’s universal twangy soul, sung by a woman who may well be a national treasure.
The best example of the sound is ”Sold the Devil (Sunshine),” a slow burner on which Lynne and crew get a Staxy groove going and don’t let go. Lynne plays in that groove, rising and ebbing on its waves on an effortless, sensual ride. You hear her firm command on the album-opening ”Paper Van Gogh,” as she effortlessly climbs and descends her register, opining on urges creative and otherwise, and their lasting effect on her ”origami heart.” It’s exquisite stuff.
I’m also partial to ”Love is Strong” (not the Stones song, but I wouldn’t mind hearing her tackle that one, too), in which Lynne sings the line, ”This love I feel is strong” in the most vulnerable fashion imaginable, only to open up on the chorus, gaining power with each measure, then floating back down again on the next verse. It’s a lovely, moving performance.
”Love is Strong” is one of two co-writes with Ron Sexsmith, that cherub-cheeked songwriter’s songwriter himself. The other, ”Be in the Now,” mines a more spiritual vein, albeit a cynical strain of spiritualism. ”There’s a man behind the curtain,” she sings, ”He got the whole world in his hands / He knows that nothing is for certain / And how he laughs at all our plans.” The chorus sweeps such sentiments away—”Never mind the rain,” she instructs—in an effort to remain present and in the moment. With an instrumental stew of upright bass, slide guitar, and insistent but subtle percussion, ”Be in the Now” would be a great hymn for some future (or current) humanist church. Think I might create one, just to compile the hymnal.
The album’s title cut closes the record on a bed of easy acoustic strumming and Ben Peeler’s pedal steel, its verses sympathetic to a loved one who wishes to sit by a river and ”cry the blues out loud until they’re gone.” The chorus offers hope, though, the ”road out of here” offering escape, and the lift in Lynne’s voice makes the offer that much more inviting.
Inviting is a good word to describe I Can’t Imagine as a whole. The soulful play of Lynne’s singing and her players’ accompaniment pulls you in so easily, then rewards you with songs that reveal simple truths and common, yet personal concerns. It’s a potent record, one more than deserving of the deepest consideration by the largest possible audience.