Shelby Sings Dusty

The blond hair hangs in loose waves instead of being pulled into a high bouffant, and the accent is Alabama twang instead of a British clip, but the sound is still the same: pure Memphis. Over the past few weeks, singer Shelby Lynne, has previewed songs from her upcoming album, "Just a Little Lovin,'" because "people need to be reminded about her and these songs again." The "her" is Britain's Dusty Springfield, and "these songs" refers mostly to that "Dusty in Memphis"-era of Springfield's seminal blue-eyed soul in the late '60s. Lynne, who was five albums into her career before she even discovered Springfield, has reinterpreted some of the British legend's classics like "Breakfast in Bed," Tony Joe White's "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" and Randy Newman's, "I Don't Want to Hear About It Anymore." Which song didn't she do? "You don't sing 'Son of a Preacher Man,'" Lynne explains between sips of red wine. "It's her song. You don't cut certain songs. The record's been made. If you can't make it your own or better, then f---ing stay home."

Springfield's songs, as re-imagined by Lynne, came about on the advice of —of all people—Barry Manilow, a friend of Lynne's since they met at a Grammy party years ago. "Everybody loves Dusty," she says, "even if they don't know that they love her yet." Her respect for the woman and her work is instantly obvious during Lynne's intimate live show in New York City, one of five she played over the past few weeks in advance of the record's release in February. The tone is reverent: less night-on-the-town and more worship at the church of Dusty—and if you're not there to pray, you best keep that to yourself. Never not one to speak her own mind, Lynne went so far as to tell off one of her own fans who was expecting to hear some of Lynne's material at the New York show last week. "It was nothing personal," she says. But that night was Dusty's night, and Dusty's alone. "This is how important I feel these songs and Dusty is," Lynne says.

Lynne never met Springfield, who died in 1999 from breast cancer around the same time that Lynne released her breakthrough album, "I Am Shelby Lynne," for which she won the Grammy for best new artist in 2001—even though she had already recorded five albums and was by no stretch "new." By that time her family history was a well-told tale: she was just 17 when her father shot her mother and then killed himself in front of Lynne and her younger sister, singer Alison Moorer. Like something out of a real-life country song, she beat it straight to Nashville and landed a record deal by the time she was 19. Now 39, she has moved beyond that dark past—and Nashville—and lives in Palm Springs, Calif. Even as a Music City expat, Lynne still seems to represent that renegade spirit that is slowly disappearing in country music—and Nashville. Imagine for a minute someone like cookie-cutter cutie Carrie Underwood singing the Springfield canon—what Lynne calls "sacred ground." You can't. It takes a certain gravity, a depth of feeling. Lynne may not have hit records, but she's got that, and it's found a perfect home in this sublimely sparse collection of songs, which have held up—and will hold up—against the test of time. Lynne's versions, as produced by Phil Ramone, have a lovely, private quality: you're let in on the secret, it seems, with the subtle, simmered down arranging. Lynne doesn't imitate Springfield, thankfully, yet it's easy to hear why Manilow knew what he was talking about when he made the suggestion.

As Lynne sits at a dark corner table in the restaurant above the venue she played the night before, there's a flicker in her eye and she leans in to say that she recorded the album at the iconic Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. Not only that, she sang into Frank's mic. "The RCA 44," she says proudly referring to Sinatra's microphone. But business is business, and when Capitol merged with Virgin earlier this year, Lynne found herself with a finished record but without a label to release it. [It will come out on Lost Highway.] Lynne thinks the saddest part is that the L.A. landmark, which has held the promise for so many artists, herself included, could possibly be torn down one day. Will it? "I don't know," she says, as she absentmindedly fixes the fleece scarf that's draped around her neck, nuzzling it playfully and calling it her "blankie." For a moment there is just a fleck of vulnerability—something that Springfield was so adept at relaying with just the slightest inflection of her voice in a song. It's there in Lynne, even if it's not so obvious. But what's the best part about being Shelby Lynne? Lynne quietly says she doesn't know. It is with a similar hush that she has made one of her most impressive statements yet.

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