When Shelby Lynne won the Grammy for best new artist in 2001, it caused quite a stir. First, because how could she be considered “new” when she’d already released six albums in 12 years. Second, because she didn’t even have a hit record.
Like best new artist Grammy winner in 2011, jazz star Esperanza Spalding, Lynne was recognized for her artistry, not her commercial success.
And that artistic success continues, as evidenced by Lynne’s enrapturing 95-minute performance Saturday night at Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
Lynne, 49, a proud Alabaman who lives in Los Angeles, writes vivid, deep, dark songs. It may stem from her, at age 17, witnessing her father fatally shoot her mother – and then himself—in front of Lynne and her younger sister.
Lynne’s songs are penetrating and powerful. As she chronicles relationships gone wrong, you can’t help but feel the despair and desperation when she sings about throwing her body on railroad tracks with a voice that’s as potent as her songs. Her pain was underscored by the acoustic and lap guitars of her lone sideman, Ben Peeler, an original member of the Mavericks.
At the Cedar, Lynne didn’t lighten the load, as she often does, with humorous comments between heavy songs. Her remarks on Saturday were about things like her deep Alabama roots, her love of classic country music and what is art, after a male fan gave her a painting.
Lynne’s music would probably be labeled alt-country or Americana. Kris Kristofferson’s influence could be heard in many of Lynne’s lyrics on Saturday, though the night’s highlight, the brilliant “Black Light Blue” (from the 2000 album, “I Am Shelby Lynne,” that led to the Grammy) suggested Leonard Cohen with its collage of poetic snippets.
Other highlights included “Johnny Met June,” about the famous country-music couple with a newly added “Spirit in the Dark” nod to Aretha Franklin at the beginning, and the encore of two happy songs, the kind of sweet “Dreamsome” and the sweetly melodic “Iced Tea.”
It all added up to artistry worth awarding.