Shelby Lynne isn’t cut out for cookie-cutter country, for which an adoring throng at City Winery was ever-so-grateful. More Bonnie Raitt or Norah Jones than Faith Hill, Lynne culls her brand of American roots music from Austin, New Orleans, and other points south of pop-craved Nashville.
It did a number on her, that town, before she bolted for Palm Springs in 1998. But her transformation and renewal yielded a straight-up artist whose intimate, faith-fueled, 90-minute set will be tough to shake.
“I’m strong enough, Lord, except when I’m not…,” Lynne, 42, sang with a conviction borne of experience. “ It’s just a reminder: I can’t go back home.”
“It’s not a friendly town if you’re a woman and you’re a songwriter and you’re creative,” she told the crowd, before launching into “Leavin’.”
“This time it’s for good,” she sang. “You should’ve treated me the way you said you would.”
Lynne is headed to Europe after a 22-date American tour. She’s chopped her hair short and left the sultry sex-kitten image behind, along with the slick production values, opting to make you well up the way Chet Baker, Nick Drake and few others could — especially on her 11th album, the unplugged “Tears, Lies and Alibis,” released on her own label last year.
And while the deliberately nuanced approach may be diametrically opposed to how the onetime Grammy winner from Alabama started out, Lynne’s career is now genuine, uncompromising — real.
It’s a path that has rewarded her equally talented sister, Allison Moorer, and her brother-in-law, the peerless Steve Earle.
It’s easy to forget that the tow-headed Lynne was once more popular than both of them, that she’s Brenda Lee-sized tiny — and that she is so incredibly gifted, both as a songwriter and as a singer.
“I’m the youngest dinosaur you ever met,” she told the crowd, talking of how her first recordings were on reel-to-reel tapes, as she introduced “Why Didn’t You Call Me?”
In her black top, dark blue jeans and combat boots, Lynne was a somewhat reluctant headliner, frequently thanking the City Winery faithful for coming out “on a school night.” She and her sideman, John Jackson, sat on stools in subdued lighting throughout the show.
Lynne even began tentatively, almost as though she was carefully dipping her toe into the water. But soon she was melting into the achingly beautiful “If I Were Smart,” one of the finest ballads you’ll ever hear, acompanied by the nimble and soulful Jackson, her musical partner of nearly a dozen years.
“It is like a marriage,” Lynne said, as Jackson borrowed her guitar, then forgot his part on Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore,” forcing Lynne to start again after the first verse. She playfully gave him double middle fingers when he wasn’t looking, then kissed Jackson as she retrieved her guitar after the song.
At one point, they slid into a funky rag, with Jackson slick-picking. Then, after Lynne innocently mentioned that she’d written a particular song after she “got religion,” the pair tore into the steamy “10 Rocks,” as the crowd clapped, stomped and cheered, revival style.
And although City Winery’s audiences can sometimes raise a racket during mellower numbers, there were only the sounds of the wait staff serving customers as Lynne pulled everyone up short with the spellbinding “Dreamsome.”
She really let it hang out on the torch song, and the momentum swelled from there — her voice growing stronger, while Jackson, a former lead guitarist behind Dylan, dug deeper on his shimmering-sounding guitars, haunting dobros and harmonica.
“Elvis never had nothing like this,” Lynne said afterward, leading into another magnificent heartbreaker, “Lookin’ Up” (“for the next thing that brings me down”).
By the time she reached “Life Is Bad,” with its haunting line: “looking for the traces of what used to be the moon,” Lynne had brought everyone to a place that isn’t easily reached. It certainly didn’t feel like Monday.
“Where I’m From” was precise, deep, and languid, as Jackson’s playing matched Lynne’s lyrics, setting up a closing string of show-stoppers that continued with “Killin’ Kind.”
“He acted like he knew me / Then he feel asleep / I had no more secrets I could keep / I told him I’m a sinner / He said, ‘That’s OK. I’m not here to change you in any way’,” she sang, on the moving “Jesus on a Greyhound.”
It was an enchanting close to the regular set, with the refrain: “I’ll ride. I’ll rise again. Ain’t no power on Earth can keep me down.”
Just in case the measured nuance escaped anyone, Lynne returned for a subdued version of Dusty Springfield’s rousing “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” followed by the lovely “Pretend.”
Shelby Lynne Moorer closed her priceless set alone on stage with an “oldie” from her “Suit Yourself” album, “Iced Tea.”
“You feel like the only home I’ve ever known,” she sang. “There’s no other place to be but in your eyes.”
Damn straight, girl.