Shelby Lynne's career has always been star-crossed, because nobody can tell exactly which category she belongs in. She falls into that too-rock-for-country-but-too-country-for-rock chasm, with a big, bold and beautiful voice that can handle anything from late-night barroom weepers to stately pop standards. It's a voice that would sound great on the radio, if only music like hers got on the radio.
Lynne's career chronology has been so strange that she won the best new artist Grammy Award a decade ago - for her sixth album, which isn't supposed to happen. Except that it did. Despite it all, however, Lynne is lucky in one regard: She knew exactly what she wanted to do at a very young age. Ask her how old she was when she figured out she had a voice good enough for show business, and she laughs.
"Young," Lynne says by phone from Los Angeles. "I mean, really young. I knew I wanted to make records when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I knew I was good enough, too. It's not just the singing voice. You also have to have the fire inside you to do what it takes to be a star, a pro. There was no doubt in my mind, which was a good thing. Some don't have that luxury of knowing what they want so young, but I did."
That determination has served Lynne well. Since her Grammy-winning breakthrough, 1999's wall-of-blue-eyed-soul-pop masterwork "I Am Shelby Lynne," she has bounced around between styles and record labels. Her highest-charting album to date has been a covers collection, 2008's Dusty Springfield tribute "Just a Little Lovin'," which cast Lynne as a fitting inheritor of Springfield's broken-hearted-songbird tradition.
Songs of hearts done wrong also prevail on Lynne's current album, "Tears, Lies and Alibis" (Everso Records), another beautifully sung set. As always, Lynne puts forth lavish amounts of emotion. But the instrumentation and arrangements are a bit more spare than usual, in part because Lynne served as her own producer. That approach can have both pros and cons.
"I don't consider myself to be a 'real' producer," she says. "There are certain reasons why you have 'em. Having somebody to man the ship and deal with details can take a big load off the artist - those day-to-day things that don't have to do with the artistic process. It's a matter of making the right decisions, who to use on what, how not to do too much and how to do enough.
"It's good in one way, that you can see the vision all through one mind," Lynne adds. "On the other hand, not having another mind to bounce things off of can be a challenge. At the end of the day, it was about not worrying too much and enjoying the process and trying to make a completely listenable record."
While the holidays are still months off, you might well hear a Christmas song or two at Lynne's Carrboro show next week. That's because, even though "Tears, Lies and Alibis" has been out just a few months, Lynne already has a follow-up album ready to go - "Merry Christmas" (due out Oct. 12), which includes seasonal chestnuts such as "Silent Night," "Silver Bells" and Vincent Guaraldi's wistful "Charlie Brown" song "Christmas Time Is Here."
"I just wanted to make a record people could listen to every year, that would be classic and go along with the times," Lynne says. "That's what I like about Christmas, the standard music you put on every year and it makes you have that feeling. Christmas music means a lot more to me than the season. It lets me know it's the season when I hear it. Willie Nelson, Elvis, Vince Guaraldi Trio - you hear any of that and it's, 'Oh yeah, Christmas, there it is.'"