Credit: Rounder Records
by Jonathan Keefe Music Rooted & Restless

Shelby Lynne — I Am Shelby Lynne

March 23, 2022

Over 20 years on, I Am Shelby Lynne‘s reissue reasserts the record a lynchpin in the artist’s catalog, and produces bonus material that matches the quality of album proper.

Released first in the UK in the spring of 1999 and in the US the following January, I Am Shelby Lynne is either a couple of years late or early for a milestone anniversary, but the February 2022 reissue proves that this is always an album worth revisiting. Its history is a circuitous journey, as Lynne had recorded a series of critically lauded but poor-selling country albums over the span of a decade before re-introducing herself with a record steeped in blue-eyed soul, folk, and vintage pop. The pivot earned her a Grammy for Best New Artist more than a decade into her career and an elevated profile that, in the subsequent years, she seemed disinterested in maintaining. Lynne’s career is one characterized by enigmatic and unpredictable shifts, and, to that end, I Am… stands as its lynchpin. If it isn’t necessarily the best record in a fascinating catalog, it remains a great album that paved the way for some critical trends and major artists that followed. Opener “Your Lies,” with its multi-tracked harmony vocals and wall-of-sound layering of orchestral swells over a bluesy guitar riff, is a clear harbinger of the retro-minded soul records that would make pop stars of Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and especially Adele just a couple of years later. The exquisite mope of I Am Shelby Lynne’s more somber moments— the outro of “Leavin’,” the tense interplay in the harmonies of “Lookin’ Up”— is all over Adele’s albums, in fact; listening to I Am… after Adele has quite rightly become one of the biggest stars in pop music, it’s easy to imagine versions of these exact songs on which Lynne’s molasses-thick Alabama drawl is replaced by Adele’s immediately recognizable lilt. 

Certainly, some of the credit for the aesthetic triumphs of I Am… is shared with producer Bill Bottrell, whose diverse discography laid the groundwork for a record that draws so evenly and so intuitively from a wide range of genres. The flourishes of classic soul — Dusty In Memphis has always been the too-easy shorthand for describing his production work on this album — always land as being in-service to the songs that he and Lynne co-wrote for the set, rather than a mere affectation, and he and Lynne demonstrate an adventurousness in using the full range of Lynne’s extraordinary voice. Beyond the intricacies of the harmony vocal arrangements, Lynne’s performances on I Am… remain a masterclass of interpretive skill and technical prowess: She’s no less effective crooning a ballad of longing (“Dreamsome”) than she is wailing about how “Life Is Bad.” The bonus material on the reissue is, in a pleasant surprise, equal in quality to what made the original cut of the album. “She Knows Where She Goes,” which Lynne’s sister, Allison Moorer, would go on to cover, is a knotty narrative of a woman on the verge, and she addresses Moorer directly on “Miss You Sissy,” asking, “Is your heart at peace / Do you hurt like I do,” a question fraught with their tragic family history. “Sky is Purple” opens with Lynne singing the classic hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” in a full-throated falsetto, in a completely different but no less riveting context and form than the bluesy rave-up of the song she recorded for 2021’s The Servant. It’s an unexpected moment, especially coming so closely on the heels of that flat-out brilliant gospel album, but, like the whole of I Am…, it demonstrates that Shelby Lynne has never once repeated herself.

Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2022 | Part 2.