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Shelby in Memphis 

The 20-year-plus career — and personal life — of the country artist Shelby Lynne has been a famously tumultuous one. As a child, she and her sister, country singer Alison Moorer, lost their parents to a murder/suicide. Lynne married once, briefly, at 18, though no discussion of that or any other romance has made it into the public sphere since then. As a teen, she was groomed to be a Nashville country-pop belle, though after a few albums she rebelled and released the critically acclaimed I am Shelby Lynne, the work that saw her signature rough-edged combination of confrontation and confession fully blossom.

Though a critic and fan favorite — and an artist who's certainly stood the test of time — Lynne never managed, after multiple stops, starts and label switches, to land the hit record that seemed to dangle just out of reach. Now, she's made the choice to take the rockier road again, recording an album of covers taken from the iconic 1969 Dusty Springfield LP Dusty in Memphis, an album most listeners would agree bears no messing with. "I've never done a cover record," she says. "So I thought I might as well do an important one."

She chose a difficult artist to take on — an artist whose own painful personal life is well known, and whose songs deal with the same topic. Although she's no stranger to difficulty, Lynne's reticent about sharing any personal details, saying only: "You have to pull the emotions out from somewhere. I don't sing songs I don't believe."

Just a Little Lovin' is Lynne's first album since 2005's Suit Yourself on Capitol Records. The new record is her first for the Universal Music subsidiary Lost Highway, which is notable for country-inflected releases from major artists unlikely to squeeze into the Nashville mold. (The label put out Elvis Costello's rootsy 2004 album The Delivery Man, which featured Emmylou Harris and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.) After years of contention with the majors and the musical establishment, Lynne thinks she's finally found her niche.

'It's just a few of us there, but they dig everybody they've signed," she says. "It's not the type of situation where the personnel is pushing records they don't dig. After 23 years, I found my record label. It's my home."

The most obvious thing to note about Just a Little Lovin' with regard to Dusty in Memphis, and other Springfield tracks, is the production style. Springfield's trademark breathy voice draped itself across miles of strings and mountains of brass. It was orchestral soul: rose-colored spotlights, pink champagne, billowing satin. In the studio, Phil Ramone and Lynne have stripped the tracks nearly bare in a way that makes the outright heartbreak of the lyrics even more wince-provoking. On "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," Lynne sings the first few bars a cappella, until a delicate, almost flameco-sounding guitar creeps in. "I Only Want to Be With You" — in Springfield's hands a delicious girl-group confectionary — turns into a subtle, sophisticated Bossa Nova.

'When I made the decision to do this record," Lynne says, "I knew I couldn't do a record that had already been made. I chose songs I knew I could make my own."

Every great Springfield song is sad — even the ones that seem happy. In the classic "Just a Little Lovin'," the wistfulness seems to imply that loving — even just a little — isn't something the singer gets anymore. The album's lone original track, "Pretend," is a work of heartache and fantasy right out of the Springfield canon, with the singer beseeching a lover gently to just join her in pretending he cares. Springfield breathed out the yearnings of her bruised heart in florid crescendos of music. Lynne chooses a Spartan sonic landscape that's sometimes austere and sometimes brutal. The brilliance of Springfield's sound was that she seemed to be offering up everything she had, the aching soul of a little girl hurt too many times. What makes Lynne's take on these formidable songs so successful is the intensity of the signature stamp she puts on them. She sings the same songs as an adult woman with no time for musical ornamentation and more than a hint of acrimony. Where Springfield wasn't bitter, Lynne is; she's also hard-edged, stark and tough. And it works.

click to enlarge Shelby Lynne covers Dusty Springfield's landmark album Dusty in Memphis - RANDEE ST. NICHOLAS
  • Randee St. Nicholas
  • Shelby Lynne covers Dusty Springfield's landmark album Dusty in Memphis
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