There is unplugged, there is stripped down and then there is Shelby Lynne’s 12th album, Revelation Road. Truth is often stranger than fiction and Lynne’s life reads like the most melodramatic country song. Born in Virgina and raised in Alabama, she was orphaned at 17 when her father shot her mother and then turned the gun on himself. She married her high school sweetheart and moved to Nashville to become a star. Cue descent into drink and drugs hell when her first 5 albums flopped, then the bounce back to win a Grammy as ‘Best New Artist’ for I am Shelby Lynne (only in America, she was 33 at the time). Then she ran away to California with the wife of the man who helped her make it. You can’t make this stuff up!
Revelation Road is as completely solo an effort as is humanly possible, short of Shelby hand-delivering each copy to those who buy it. She wrote, sang, played all the instruments and produced the album, and in this case, it’s no idle affection or ego display. Many of the songs are explorations of a plethora of emotions born of the legacy of violence, sculpted with her soulful, Dusty Springfield-influenced vocals. One upshot is the inevitability of failed relationships. It would hardly be a Lynne album without at least a handful of those deeply romantically rueful tracks, including ‘The Thief’ and ‘Toss It All Aside.’ That history of sorrow culminates in ‘I Don’t Need a Reason to Cry,’ where she sings, “Don’t know why it’s broke … My heart just told me now’s the time to frown.” You almost have to laugh at how perfectly she captures the melancholy temperament.
Family is a recurring theme, for both better and worse, and its not all bleak. The happiest number is ‘I’ll Hold Your Head,’ in which Lynne recalls the car trips where she, her sister (singer Allison Moorer), and their mother used to pick out three-part harmonies from the country songs they heard on the radio. Faint snippets of the old standard “Side by Side” are heard in the background, and it’s a fairly heartbreaking, if almost subliminal, touch.
As the album’s penultimate tune and emotional climax, ‘Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road’ is written from the point of view of her late father, setting out with murder on his mind. “Hundred or so miles from the Mobile River/Lord I can’t have her so I got to kill her,” she begins, and you can barely believe what you’re hearing. “Can’t blame the whiskey or my mammy’s ways/Two little girls are better off this way,” she adds in the final stanza, before frantic acoustic guitar strumming gives way to two muted pops that might go unnoticed by the casual listener.
She concludes with ‘I Won’t Leave You,’ a heartbreakingly gorgeous ballad in which she sings of love transcending even the most difficult life circumstances. And that’s the revelation.
Lynne has as rivetingly soulful a voice as any white woman working today. If the sound of stark honesty is even remotely your thing, you’ll want to follow Lynne’s ‘Road’ less travelled.’
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