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Southern discomfort
Digging the roots of Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne
BY FRANKLIN SOULTS
Speaking of Shelby . . .

Q: The new album seems a lot less dark than I Am Shelby Lynne. Are you in a happier place now?

A: Well, I donít understand why a lot of people assume that I was unhappy then. You know, sad songs are the best. You donít have to be miserable to make those kinds of records, not in every case anyway.

Q: That brings up the creative-process question. Some artists write about what theyíre going through; others decide to picture an emotion.

A: It works either way for me. Sometimes Iím in it; sometimes Iím thinking about being in it.

Q: So, what inspired an abstract new song like "I Wonít Die Alone"?

A: Well, I wrote it in five minutes. . . . I donít know; Iíve tried to figure it out myself. Thereís the line in there about the "monkey on your back" thing. And I think that automatically people would think about drugs or whatever. But I think that there are certain burdens in life that donít have anything to do with drugs or alcohol; it could simply be your family or the past. And I think thatís pretty much what itís about ó the past, and how itís kind of like a monkey on your back. Thereís nothing you can do about it.

_FS

Lucinda Williamsí official Web site

Franklin Soults reviews Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears

Matt Ashare reviews Lucinda Williams' live at the Orpheum.

Shelby Lynne's official Web site

Franklin Soults reviews Shelby Lynne's Identity Crisis.

Lucinda Williamsís Live @ the Fillmore (Lost Highway) and Shelby Lynneís Suit Yourself (Capitol) are crisp, attractive major-label releases by major-name artists who stretch the definition of country farther than any radical alt-country artist on indies Bloodshot or Sugar Hill. Although both albums have some pedal steel and mandolin, neither twangs much ó their spare arrangements center on acoustic or electric guitar. Williamsís nearly two-hour double CD was recorded on two nights at the end of her 2003 tour with her ace three-piece back-up, and all but four of its 22 tracks come from her previous two albums, Essence and World Without Tears (both on Lost Highway), the former a woozy dose of singer-songwriter folk, the latter a piercing, groove-oriented rock shot. Lynneís 12-song album alternates between modified home demos and a five-piece studio band featuring two rock-minded musicians, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and former Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward. Lynne produced it all on analog equipment, and when I ask her about the new albums she was listening to, she mentions only the White Stripesí alt-everything home recording, Get Behind Me Satan.

Both discs are being hailed by fans whose attitudes toward country otherwise range from distrust to disdain. (One blogger describes himself as a "vehement anti-country listener.") Even so, I suspect that the image these albums will shore up is so traditional, it might make even Bloodshot and Sugar Hill devotees blush: the tough, sexy female country singer whose bitchy persona and DIY career are shot through with vulnerability and self-destructive impulses. (Think Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn.) Itís an image that the best Nashville music has been moving beyond at least since Lynnís 1973 smash "The Pill." Or maybe I just mean that Nashville has been covering up.

Williams, who plays the Opera House on July 12, and Lynne, who headlines the Paradise on the 17th, arrived at this traditional image by paths as different as two Southern anti-belles could take. Born 52 years ago in Louisiana, Williams grew up in a household kept on the move by her dadís temporary teaching positions. In 1969, she started to wander on her own, venturing into Austinís roots-music scene after being expelled from high school for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Raised in Alabama, the young Shelby Lynne Moorer had it far harder: she and her younger sister, Allison (now also a successful singer), witnessed their alcoholic father shoot their mother to death in the family driveway before killing himself. About a year later, Shelby landed a deal in Nashville.

"I was doing mainstream country crap," she says on the phone from home. "And I was 18 years old, 19 years old, 20; I wanted a hit. It was not until I was like 4000 that I figured out: ĎFuck the hit, make a great album, itís the only way youíre going to survive.í " Thatís when the hit came. After a dozen years in Nashville, Lynne moved back to Alabama and released 2000ís Grammy-winning I Am Shelby Lynne (Island), a Dusty SpringfieldĖlike Southern Gothic masterpiece. But it proved nothing more than a rest stop as she went on to 2002ís widely disdained pop move, Love Shelby (Island), and then 2003ís Identity Crisis, a self-produced debut for Capitol whose musical eclecticism could seem formulaic and whose oddball lyrics often sounded sloppy. Lucinda Williams has never released a weak album, yet her career has been equally tumultuous, marked by strife with labels and fellow musicians and by a legendary perfectionism thatís limited her to seven studio releases in the past quarter-century.

At this point, the two artists settle down only to shore up their unsettled personas. Lynneís opening "Go with It" sets the loose, spontaneous mood with its studio chatter, simple groove, and mantra-like chorus: "You do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it/Just let go." That philosophy almost guarantees that Suit Yourself wonít be another I Am Shelby Lynne, but the impromptu spirit and the spare arrangements also focus Lynne on the moment and help her recapture the melancholy of her masterpiece in a lighter shade of gray. "I Cry Everyday" and "I Wonít Die Alone" sway lightly on a blue groove. "Youíre the Man" and "Johnny and June" capture the immediacy of her outrage and sorrow as she hears the news of a chemical plantís indifference and a legendís passing. And the craft in the two tunes by Tony Joe White ground the disc just when it starts to drift.

Williamsís Live@ the Fillmore is even better. Building from the folk-country melancholy of Essence through the freewheeling jams of World Without Sorrow, itís worth the price just for its balance between execution and passion, for the way it summarizes a catalogue while painting a portrait of an artist living in the moment. Williams isnít a natural performer like Lynne, but where she was once tentative, her shows have over the past few years become unpredictable and impassioned, and here she balances restraint ó minimum crowd noise, almost no patter ó with a willingness to let her vocals fray and her band unwind. Both Williams and Lynne emerge as Southern artists who have willingly and gracefully surrendered to their romanticism, defining Southernness as a life haunted by the past as it wanders far from home. That might be the definition of all American music.

Lucinda Williams | Opera House, 539 Washington St, Boston | July 12 | 617.228.6000

Shelby Lynne | Paradise, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | July 17 | 617.228.6000


Issue Date: July 8 - 14, 2005
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