I’ve never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simplemindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers have always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma, that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today’s popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what it thinks is the lowest common denominator is the surest way to be a success.
So one of the nicest surprises I’ve had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line – A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before, I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord”, she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly thereafter the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Everso Records label, arrived in my inbox.
While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents, she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and, depending on the level of their funding, bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing in the intimate back room of McCabe’s guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe’s, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road, and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. It also includes a 12-page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD, and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.
Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn’t been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier. That’s the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff. This set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn’t sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it’s because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don’t just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.
Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn’t feel like she’s claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don’t join her club. It’s a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then, just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world, it stands to reason the topic will be raised.
The title song of the disc, “Revelation Road”, is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital “S”. However, the song is more about how we’re all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what’s important. “Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You’re both too young to know you’re mute/Unconscious to the choir”. In fact, a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne’s songs are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
“I Want To Go Back” is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past. “Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I’m used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because it’s what you’re used to. When you’ve been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.
Of course, dealing with these themes don’t make Lynne’s songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe’s disc, something along the lines of, “Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music”. Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she’s giving fair warning that she’s not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.
Maybe it’s just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar, her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde, and sort of waif-like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that’s not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.
Rounding out the package is the approximately 11-minute documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice-overs or any of the other things you’d normally associate with a “making of” type of thing. Instead we’re treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around, from her office where she’s working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that’s all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What’s really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she’s so absorbed in what she’s doing nothing is going to distract her.
If, like me, you’re not very familiar with Lynne’s work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you’re already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks, and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne’s material make her a rarity in the world of today’s popular music, no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today’s world. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.