By the time Shelby Lynne won her Best New Artist Grammy, she'd already completed six albums and had over a decade of recording experience under her belt. Yet in a way, the award was appropriate, since I Am Shelby Lynne was the album that finally found her taking control of her music, following years of casting about in search of an identity. Lynne's work ranged through country, blues, Southern soul, roots rock, Western swing, jazz, and adult contemporary pop; naturally, that eclecticism made her difficult to market, and it also resulted in pressure to record more commercial, radio-friendly material that didn't really suit her. Once Lynne put all the pieces together, she found herself embraced not by the country mainstream, but by rock critics, British audiences, and the alt-country/Americana crowd.
Lynne was born Shelby Lynne Moorer in Quantico, Virginia, in 1968 and spent most of her childhood in Jackson, Alabama. Her father was a local bandleader and her mother a harmony-singing teacher; as children, she and her younger sister Allison -- later a country recording artist in her own right -- sometimes joined their parents on-stage to sing along. However, Lynne's father was a violent alcoholic who at one point had her thrown in jail; when Lynne was 17, he shot his wife dead in the family's driveway, then turned the gun on himself while his daughters looked on. Lynne took charge of raising her sister and married her high school sweetheart (albeit briefly) prior to their move to Nashville. There, Lynne recorded some demo songs, which landed her an appearance on TNN's Nashville Now series. That, in turn, led to a duet with George Jones, for 1988's Top 50 hit "If I Could Bottle This Up," and a record deal with Epic, where Lynne teamed up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill for her 1989 debut album, Sunrise. The follow-up, 1990's Tough All Over, took more of a Reba McEntire-esque direction, and 1991's Soft Talk found Lynne moving into slick country-pop.
Lynne placed several songs on the country charts during this period, but none managed to break into the Top 20. Critics generally regarded her as a promising talent, and she even won the CMA's Horizon Award (given to the year's top emerging artist) in 1991. However, she was tiring of the lack of control she was afforded over her image and musical direction. She split from Epic and signed with the smaller Morgan Creek label, debuting with 1993's Temptation, an exercise in Bob Wills-style Western swing and big-band jazz. Unfortunately, the label folded not long after, and she moved on to Magnatone for 1995's Restless, which marked a return to contemporary-style country. Afterward, Lynne disappeared from recording for several years. During that time, she moved to Palm Springs, California, and convinced producer Bill Bottrell -- best known for his early work with Sheryl Crow -- to work on her next album.
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