Shelby Lynne knew exactly what she wanted for her new album. She knew she would write every song. She knew she would record it at home, with just her guitar, her voice and a bass player (adding a few light accents later with piano, strings and percussion). She knew when she went looking for a record label, she wouldn’t negotiate the results — the album would have to come out just as she recorded it, or she’d take it elsewhere.
The only question was what to call it. She didn’t have a title in mind, nor did the record have an easily defined direction. It embraced all the music she loved: blues, country, gospel, R&B, classic swing-era pop, and raw rock ‘n’ roll. She felt it was her favorite album, just above her 2000 breakthrough I Am Shelby Lynne — and for good reason.
Lynne’s manager, Betty Bottrell, came up with an answer to both dilemmas. Her suggested title, Identity Crisis, addressed the personal nature and schizophrenic variety of the album’s twelve tracks.
“I thought it was the perfect title,” Lynne says. “I didn’t know what the hell to call it; I’m not good at that part. Usually I go for a song title, ’cause that’s the easy way out. But when she said ‘Identity Crisis’, I got to thinking about it, and it kind of turned me on. It seemed right, because every song is so different.”
Lynne figured the title nicely summed up the scope of what she had created. “I was really experimenting throughout this album, from the songs I was writing to playing my own guitar to learning how to use equipment and record it at home,” she says. “I was on a mission, and that was to figure out how to make my own record on my own time. You can hear me trying things out and seeing what works for me.”
But an identity crisis, by nature, is personal. Even if each song bears seeds of her own experience, the title suggests something more: a search for self-definition. Does it touch a deeper nerve?
“Absolutely, definitely,” she answers. Then stops.
OK, I ask, in what ways?
“In all ways,” she says. Again, a long pause. I wait, hoping she’ll continue. She doesn’t.
Can I get you to explain?
“All of my records are autobiographical. It’s the only thing I know. It’s all I know.”
More silence. She hasn’t really addressed the question. So you’re saying this record represents your search for identity, that there’s been some crisis in figuring out who you are?
“I think life is a struggle, period, for everybody,” she says without hesitation — still not really responding to the question. “There are a lot of people who just float through life, and there are a lot of people who don’t. I don’t know which I am, to be honest. I do feel pretty fortunate about life in general. But, man, that doesn’t make it easy. I’ve had some good luck in my life, but that doesn’t mean my life is one big, sweet piece of cake.”
She doesn’t seem like a floater, I tell her. She seems more like a fighter.
“Yeah,” she says, laughing. “You know, I feel like whatever you’re presented with, it’s best to deal with it upfront and directly — good or bad. I’m lucky. I get to write songs about my stuff, about what I go through.”
From shortly after Lynne signed as an 18-year-old fresh out of small-town Alabama, she has carried a reputation for three things. First, there’s her remarkable voice. Next, there’s her battle-ready attitude, which has led to clashes with record companies, producers and anyone else who tried to force her to do something against her instincts or desires. Finally, there’s the tragic event that forever shadows her, the night her father shot and killed her mother, then turned the gun on himself, in a driveway with Shelby and younger sister Allison inside. She was 17 at the time.
Each of those points bears its own weight. She has always denied that her family history turned her into a defiant, moody soul. “I was as difficult and stubborn when I was 7 as I was at 18,” she told me in 1995, our third interview at that point. “My dad always taught me to stand up for myself and not to go with the flow, and I’ve always followed that advice.”
Her shyness didn’t help, since her combination of awkwardness and frankness was viewed as arrogance by some. “I’m not much of a talker,” she says. “I’m most comfortable when I’m by myself. It’s just the way I am. I have no trouble being off to myself.”
That might seem strange for someone who’s chosen to be a pop-culture entertainer, but Lynne is that rare performer who, even after getting inside the machine, continues to view music as artistic expression rather than as a star-turning vehicle. That’s why she has continually fought with the industry that tries to sell her; she’s never been good at developing the glad-handing, image-conscious persona most modern music-makers adopt to help them get across.