Ben Peeler and Shelby Lynne at City Winery, July 21, 2018.
“When a line hits you, you’d best to put it down somewhere,” said the southern singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, by way of introducing the Jimmy-Webb-esque “Lookin’ Up.” At City Winery in NYC on a rainy night, there were striking lines to come during Lynne’s concert, many of them heartbreaking. (That song’s hook line is “I'm lookin' up, for the next thing that brings me down.”) Later in the evening, Lynne told us that someone once asked her, “Why can’t you write a happy song?”: “I said, ‘Fuck you!’”
As someone who experienced unimaginable tragedy early in life, she’s earned the right to that reaction. In “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” she sang from her father’s point of view about his intention to kill her mother (which he carried out, then killing himself): “Can’t blame the whiskey or my Mammy’s ways / Two little girls are better off this way.” Those girls, 17 and 14 at the time, were Lynne and her younger sister, Allison Moorer, the Americana singer-songwriter (and ex-wife of Steve Earle's). Lynne spoke movingly of “Sissy” during the set, sending out to her—Moorer lives part-time in New York but was in Nashville—the song “I’ll Hold Your Head,” whose last verse ends, “Come on, Sissy, let’s close the door / Don’t want to hear the noise no more.”
But Lynne also elicited a lot of laughter from the audience—especially after she forgot her own lyrics a couple of times—as well as that communal feeling that we always hope for with concerts. At one point we were all singing, with Lynne, a slow version of the old chestnut “Side by Side” (“Though we ain’t got a barrel of money…”), poignant because it was a tune the two sisters sang together as children (it makes an appearance in the recorded version of “I’ll Hold Your Head”).
Lynne at the merch stand after the concert.
After the show, I stood in line to get a signed copy of one of Lynne's albums. Although her new release, Here I Am, the soundtrack of an upcoming movie she stars in, was available, I chose I Can’t Imagine on vinyl. As Lynne signed, with a gold marker, the cover's lovely, natural-looking image of herself ("What's your name, darlin'?"), I told her I was moved by her song about her sister. I then impulsively showed her an old picture (a copy on my phone) of my mother, who’s long deceased, and my aunt, who only recently died; on their dusty Texas farm in the 1930s, my mother, about 12, smiles as she holds her baby sister up toward the camera.
I added, “I have a sister, too.” “I hear you,” she said simply.
I recall my husband, after watching Lynne sing John Lennon’s “Mother” in a televised concert shortly after 9/11, saying that, with her wrenching yet sexy performance, the singer seemed a perfect example of Eros and Thanatos. Her haunted, beautiful face will tell you as much.