Shelby Lynne Interview: Musician Takes Candid Walk Down ‘Revelation Road’
Just because Shelby Lynne titled her most recent studio album Revelation Road doesn’t mean the singer-songwriter, who produced the album, played all the instruments and released the outstanding CD on her own Everso Records, intended to reveal more of her life story than she had with any of her previous albums. It actually just sort of happened that way. But as it is with the most challenging, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately rewarding works of art, Shelby the artist — no matter how outspoken she is (and she unquestionably is) — has left the details up to individual interpretation and will only reveal just so much. She can certainly be forgiven for not continually explaining herself or for rehashing the past, particularly when that past includes the inescapable, horrific fact that when she was 17, Shelby’s father killed her mother and then shot himself on the lawn outside their Alabama home, while Shelby and her 14-year-old sister, Allison, were inside. Singer Allison Moorer (whom Shelby, now 44, calls “Sissy”) is married to Steve Earle and the couple has a young son, John Henry. While the siblings toured together for the first time in 2010 (a trek titled Side by Side) and had discussed recording an album together, they have otherwise maintained separate music careers, having been asked about each other — and asked to dredge up memories of their horrific past — so often that it can get pretty tiring pretty quickly. We certainly get that, yet some of us just can’t help pressing the issue — nearly derailing a pleasant, music-centered (and already very lengthy) conversation in the process. And make no mistake, even without the candid dialogue on other subjects, talking to Shelby about music is always a treat because, even coming at it from different directions, we are both incredibly passionate about it, something of which Shelby was soon aware.
Just as Revelation Road (released in 2011, and now available in a treasure-laden deluxe edition which includes the dynamic singer’s first-ever live album, Live at McCabe’s) details as much of her life as she’s comfortable sharing, so, too, does the following conversation which took place one afternoon in the bar at Nashville’s majestic Union Station Hotel. The intimate chat surprised (and revealed) both interviewer and subject and before it’s over, Shelby, in her sweet but unmistakably, wholly persuasive Southern drawl, specifically requests that the entire conversation appear in print just as it happened. A few tense moments and surprising (if not entirely shocking) revelations aside, what follows is — with minor edits for the sake of clarity, length and adult language — a transcription of the conversation that took place between Shelby Lynne and myself.
Stephen L. Betts: Now that you’re a few records into doing this all basically on your own, how do you feel?
Shelby Lynne: I feel happy. It’s kind of like having an empty canvas. I can paint whatever I want. I can paint little circles, I can paint squares; I can use purple and red and I don’t have to answer to a soul. It’s wonderful. There is really no better gift than to be able to create your story and share it with people.
In terms of the canvas for Revelation Road, what are the colors we’re looking at?
It’s like looking at any painting, everybody sees it differently. I feel what I feel for my very personal stories and hope that somewhere in my stories you’ll find yours. There’s no other explanation for doing something so personal.
One of the songs that really stayed with me on the album is “I’ll Hold Your Head.” Where did that phrase come from?
The natural thing to say would be, “I’ll hold your hand.” It was more than that. If you’re going to hold somebody’s head, you’re holding their existence. All the f—ed-up stuff is in there. That’s what needs comforting.
The part that people might miss until they listen to it a few times is the inclusion of the song within the song, “Side by Side.”
Mama and Sissy and I used to sing that song driving to school every morning. It was just a natural progression because she knew it as a little girl and then we sang it as little girls with her. So when I made the record, I was in the studio doing that track and it came to me that I could sing that song in three parts like we used to do, in a minor key on the ending and it will work. So I thought, why not? This is one of the beauties of having creative freedoms.
Is it frustrating or does it make you apprehensive when people try to dig into your lyrics and try to figure out if a song is about this person or that person?
I hope they do. I hope they can find some sense in it. That’s part of why I do it. It’s really an honor if people want to take your songs, look at them and ask you about them. It’s my story and you find yours in it. I don’t read any of the press, good or bad, I don’t think it’s healthy.
Did you ever?
Early on. “Oh God, they’re writing about me!” But that goes away when you get your feelings hurt and you start taking it seriously. Because that’s really just one person’s opinion. When you make music for a living, people are going to have their opinions. You just have to f—ing do your thing and not worry about it. It’s not for everybody. But those who dig it, dig it. You can’t take it personally.
With everything being so self-contained for you now, can you be objective?
I don’t think it matters if I am or not. If I got objective that would mean I’m thinking about what I’m doing and I don’t want to think about what I’m doing. I don’t think what I do is important enough to think about it too much. It’s not f—ing literature. It’s little stories of mine.
But if it touches somebody on a really deep level …
It still doesn’t make it literature. It’s heart poetry. Music is a great place to hide our stories.
You can certainly rock out, but when the songs started coming for this record, did it feel like this was going to be a more “quiet” album, for lack of a better word?
Intimate. That happened on purpose in a way that I really couldn’t control. Being that I played everything, my fancy guitar picking was limited, ya dig? I kept it really simple and let the songs do it because that’s simply the record I decided to make this time. It turned out to be a nice thing. There are instruments on there that I never actually picked up and played before. I don’t know if you can actually call it playing them.
What were some of those?
Mandolins. I’ve never played drums either. [laughs]
“Lead Me Love” is another beautiful song on the record …
Another fantasy, romance-type of a colored-mind moment. I sometimes wonder about Ira and George Gershwin sitting around a piano, writing. They wrote the most romantic love songs of our lives. And they’re still the mainstay that we always go back to. All we’re doing as songwriters is trying to come up with a new way to say “I love you.”
Do you ever dream songs?
There’s a song on [Revelation Road Deluxe Edition] called, “It Ain’t Your Land, Mama,” that’s about a dream I had about my mama and Joni Mitchell on a porch. I always keep paper by the bed. I was dreaming it and it was one of those things where if I opened my eyes, it would all be gone. So I wrote with my eyes closed, still trying to be awake but asleep at the same time.
Do you think there was a particular reason that those two people were in that dream?
I think it was just an admission of being the victim of love. Letting yourself be completely devoured by it, helplessly.
“Toss It All Aside” is another of my favorites.
I wrote that several years ago but I didn’t know why. I knew it wasn’t about me because it’s written in first-person about how “you’ve left me and now I’m going to kill myself.” I think it was probably a subconscious thing about Mama and Daddy.
Have you ever written a song, then written another song and realized it was the continuation of that previous song?
It’s funny you mention that. Because every song on this record has a little thread in it, a theme. I think this album is my telling my story of my parents and my sister. Kind of like my “childhood” album. I don’t know for sure, but maybe it’s as close to confessional as I’ll get.
I wondered about that but it wasn’t even something I really wanted to ask you.
Well, it’s fine. I mean, you can ask me anything you want to. I’ve come a long way, baby.
The title of the album, Revelation Road, does suggest something of a confessional journey.
And it does have a little bit of a biblical overtone to it, because I’m fascinated with the Book of Revelation. It’s supposed to be the end of it all for us. That was my soul’s curiosity coming out in songs and frustration about how can it be that if you say one “Hail, Mary,” you’re OK. How can it be that easy? I just happened to be stupid enough to write about it in a song. Is that crazy? I sit around and write what I think. Should I continue to do this, Stephen? This is a collection of my most private, secretive, emotion-y type things. It was just time. I didn’t sit myself down and say, “OK, it’s time to write the song about what Daddy did.” It was about the peace I found in my heart to be able to write something in peace.
How did you handle it when people would ask about what happened with your parents?
For years, I wouldn’t go near it. Because I was so scared of being identified with that being what I was. It wasn’t that it was painful to talk about or anything because I’ve been so OK for so long. It was more about: I want you to love my music and then we’ll talk about all that other mean stuff. That was always my fear. Now I’m old and I don’t give a damn. I’m so OK. I’m grateful for it.
Then I’m going to take a bit of a leap and see if I get kicked out of here. I wanted to ask how you would identify yourself in terms of relationships, in terms of your, uh, orientation.
Are you asking me if I’m gay?
Well, yes I guess I am.
You have balls enough to ask me that?
Well, I am, so, yes, I guess I do.
Well, then, ask me! [laughs] Let me put it to you this way. I’ve been around the world and back so many times, I think everybody’s gay. Everybody’s a little gay. As far as my personal life, I don’t go into details because that’s all I’ve got. With the person that I allow out in the music, that’s plenty. But I am secure enough to say that of all of my relationships, I’ve covered the boundaries. [laughs] I don’t think there’s any need anymore in our time and era for titles or brands … because either way you try to sensitize it, somebody’s going to be offended. So the best thing to do is just be who you are and be proud of it and hopefully everybody can love who they want to love. I certainly wouldn’t want to offend anybody who is gay and out and all that kind of stuff. It’s not my concern what other people do. It’s only my concern about how I conduct myself. I believe in a person’s privacy. Not everything has to be announced. Why state the obvious? There’s a curiosity about a lot of people’s sexuality but you also have to respect that not everybody wants to sit around and talk about it.
For me, personally — and this is just me saying this — it’s almost essential at this point to be able to own it for yourself so that you can be something of an example to people who are struggling and can’t own it, for whatever reason.
OK, good point. So I will stress, even more importantly, it’s not what you want to announce to the world — and if you do, that’s great — but you don’t have to. You don’t have to be labeled something, in society’s terms. You just need to be. That’s what I would tell young ‘uns and people that are struggling, who say, “I know I’m gay but I can’t come out because of my family or whatever.” Just decide. You don’t have to be under any rules. It’s OK to be a freak. Be proud of your freak-ism, man. Haul it on out there. I see a change in the universe. Maybe it’s just me, but as hard as it is to watch the news and see the misunderstanding that people have as they judge other people and their lives — that’s, right there, the word — judgment. We can’t do that to each other because it doesn’t matter. Come over to my house and eat some tomatoes. I don’t care who you love. It’s about eating tomatoes together. I feel bad for kids that have that struggle. There’s only so much hiding you can do until you blow up. I see Nashville and how it’s changed and there are these hip, cool places. Twenty years ago it was hard to find some cool places.
I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to broach the subject with you. But, of course, I also know that our readers are curious about these kinds of things. But, I’ve been doing this a long time and I certainly never would have asked somebody that question — or told somebody that — 20 years ago, so I understand.
I don’t care about it anymore. I’m still not going to talk about my personal life. Who I’m f—king doesn’t matter. But I’m not going to sit around and say I haven’t experienced pretty much everything there is to experience, because I have, on purpose. I’m a curious human being. So I’ll leave it at that.
In terms of curiosity, what are some of the things that you’re curious about and, maybe I don’t want to say experimenting with, but for instance, I’m trying to learn more about cooking because I can’t cook.
I have lots of interests. Of course, they all gather around the artistic crowd. Getting in the garden is the most important to me, because it’s the earth.
So, you have a pretty good garden at home?
It’s sizable enough for me to handle. I planted some sunflowers this year, some of the mammoths. Have you ever seen the mammoth ones? The stalks are 20 feet tall! I have pictures. [Shelby shows me the pictures on her phone]. When I saw that, I said, “Now, don’t tell me there’s not a God.”
When was the last time you went to Alabama, to where you grew up?
It’s been a long time. I had a show down there couple of years ago but that’s all. No big visits. I’m appreciative of my family and my roots but it doesn’t necessarily mean I have anything in common with them. We’re family, I’m a Southerner, true and blue, and always will be, but I love where I am now in California. Just because you’re kin to somebody doesn’t mean you need to hang out with them. Just because you’re family doesn’t mean you have anything in common. Why torture yourself? I think we do that to ourselves because it’s in our makeup to be so family-oriented. I’m lucky, I have music. I can write about my tortures.
On the subject of family, though, I’m curious about your sister and your nephew, John Henry …
She lives here and I live there and that’s that. We don’t have a lot of time together. We’re too far apart. But, as far as I know, he’s precious. I’ve seen pictures of him and he’s cute.
When was the last time you saw him?
I don’t have much a relationship because they’re too far away. This is the thing with Sissy, there won’t be any records and it’s two different careers. I’m not going to get into it.
Well, fair enough. That’s good enough for me. But, you know, I don’t think my bosses would feel like I was doing my job if I didn’t try to get some of those cute little family stories …
[leans into the microphone] There aren’t any. I’m going to ask you a question, and I know you’ll tell me the truth. “Is she gay,” the sister, the nephew … where does the music come in?
Well, you’re right. I’m certainly happy to talk to you just about the music …
[At this point, her voice raising, Shelby is clearly a bit annoyed by this line of questions] That s– right there is why there’s no soul. Nobody gives a s– about what I think about John Henry. That’s pathetic! That doesn’t have anything to do with Revelation Road! G–damn! “Is she gay?” Who ain’t? I don’t want to feel like any individual person or party is ever going to “get the credit” for ever being able to call me anything. That’s not fair! That pisses me off that you’ve got somebody sitting in a building somewhere that doesn’t know me from s— and Crisco and they’re gonna try to get the only thing they know that hasn’t been gotten … and they’re never gonna get. They don’t know me. They don’t realize that I’m offended. I feel like going up there and kicking their a–. That’s why I don’t do interviews! But [you and I], we’re good. After all these years of being in this business and being screwed by the press, I understand. If you want anybody to be interested in your music they’ve got to know who you’re f—ing. I’m not unaware of the reality.
And it’s not the first time you’ve been asked these questions.
Well, I guaran-damn-tee you this, this is the most I’ve ever been as adamant about the way I feel about it. But my sexuality is my choice and I choose freedom and keeping my personal life personal. I don’t give a s—. Anybody can think about me whatever they want, that’s the world we live in. But I’m not going to be forced into making announcements [or talk about] some silly little thing to satisfy some a–hole at a magazine who doesn’t care about me or anybody like me. I mean it. It’s not about what I am. It’s about what people can take of what I give them and make their own decisions. Because I am no role f—ing model, I don’t want to be. I think everybody should love who they want and to be themselves. And be happy. Be happy.
In spite of the annoyance Shelby expresses at this point of our conversation, she asks me if I want a drink. I politely decline, although I add that I might, in fact, need one. Eventually, I realize I’m not about to be banished and we settle back into our discussion about her music. She mentions that she has two new albums currently in the planning stages and when I press her for details she says to call next year and she’ll tell me about them first. I take this as a good sign.
When, after nearly an hour, she realizes it’s time for her to get ready for that night’s gig at Nashville’s Bluebird Café, I mention that although I had considered it, I’m not sure I’ll be able to attend. “After all this?” she asks incredulously. “Now you have to!” (I do attend and, of course, witness a remarkable performance that includes her solo, acoustic takes on songs from throughout the Grammy winner’s career.) Before we part, I ask if I can get a picture with her and she complies — even allowing it to be taken again when I’m not happy with the first one. Yes, even “after all this” I can’t help myself. She did say I could ask her anything, right? So, I’d like to think it’s all Shelby’s fault for empowering me. Whether she meant to or not.