Shelby Lynne, Spare And True

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Shelby Lynne was barely 20 years old when Nashville tried to make a star of her in the late '80s, and she was in her early thirties when Island Records tried to launch her as a Sheryl Crow-style roots-rocker. Happily, neither attempt made her a household name, meaning we can still see her play smallish venues like the Birchmere, where she delivered a set Sunday night that was at once strikingly intimate and unabashedly celebratory.

Opening with a trio of songs performed solo acoustic, including her remarkable Cash eulogy, "Johnny Met June," Lynne was soon joined by a second guitarist-vocalist, and then, midway through her set, by bassist-vocalist Brian Harrison. Whether playing solo or with the others, Lynne kept the instrumentation lean -- "I wanted to play 'em for you the way I wrote 'em," she declared early on -- proving her songs have no need for the gaudy production that's occasionally been larded onto them.

In a further declaration of purpose, Lynne drew nearly all of her 21-song set from "I Am Shelby Lynne" (the LP that got her a Grammy for best new artist 2001 -- 11 years and six albums into her career) and the three records she's released since, omitting the phase of her career when she recorded other artists' material.

Working (she said) without a set list, Lynne still managed to pace her show so that spike-in-the-heart ballads like "Killin' Kind" felt as cathartic as rave-ups like "Buttons and Beaus" or the set-closing "Jesus on a Greyhound." The paucity of barn-burners put the focus squarely on her agile, powerful voice, an expressive instrument capable of rendering such explicit emotional detail that even the best arena-level sound system would surely strip some of it away. So we're glad you're not a bigger star, Shelby.

-- Chris Klimek

© 2006 The Washington Post Company