Shelby Lynne, on her new seasonal CD Merry Christmas, combines a sense of childlike wonder and adult worldly smarts. Her musicality is thoroughly compelling as she imbues often overly familiar lyrics with a worldly understanding of life’s complexity. On every word, it seems, she probes the individual heart for depth of human emotion.
Lynne is not a singer who does hope and wonder by rote, but marries mind and emotion at one intense go. She doesn’t avoid pain, whatever its devastating effect. Like a master actor she creates without deviation an immediacy of human connection, sings with instinctive intimacy in every line, develops intensity through understatement, and reveals an uncanny knack for constant fluctuations of nuance.
Shelby Lynne enriches whatever idiom she uses as a musical vehicle, and there are several here, without effort or self-consciousness. She pulls the listener close as a matter of course until the listener feels he or she is feeling too much as a result. Yes, this is much a Christmas CD, but a very human one that resonates gently with wisdom and unavoidable sadness. It celebrates Christmas as people know it, not as it is marketed at them.
There are thirteen cuts on Merry Christmas and each one is rewarding. To begin, her Sleigh Ride/ Winter Wonderland pairing suggests a swinging post-war big band girl singer edged in purr, with a vocalized hint of smile. In the self-penned Ain’t Nothing Like Christmas, she is assertive in phrasing and gives her lyrics a slight punch that denotes a centered individuality, a womanly confidence. A laid-back naturalness from which diversity flows is a Lynne trademark and her persona feels easy, rich with life savvy, and unforced. Her southern take on pronunciation makes “I’ll bring the nog, you put on the log” sound like a na-ogue and la-ogue, and I’m charmed.
Few singers come emotionally closer than Shelby Lynne and Christmas Time is Here is rich with inherent vulnerability that knows the value of an island of warmth, Christmas, in a troubling world. Her voice seems to bless what she describes with gratitude. Silver Bells has a sense of discovery to it, like an artist noticing details of people doing a city, but like a novelist Lynne also takes on the perspective of the people she describes. She subtly suggests wistful feelings, perhaps of regret. On the other hand, Christmas Time’s a Coming comes on strong with an irresistible bluegrass drive. Like their vocalist’s style, the band’s instrumental solos along the way are thoughtfully conceived. “I know I’m coming Home” offers a hint of a long-desired salvation.
O Holy Night is not treated as a showstopper but as almost too personal a human experience. It opens with a poignant and serene dobro solo and Lynne proceeds to sing with a humble conviction of a believer who understands both the human and spiritual dimensions of the scene she is describing. This version of O, Holy Night is enormously potent in its seemingly casual understatement. Some fun again and Santa Claus is Coming to Town is more than declaration of impending parental moral judgment. Lynne sounds like both judge and sinner, half maternal and half woman who has known the good life, perhaps with Santa himself. Ergo the singing sounds like a wink and a nudge that doesn’t get hung up on dividing naughty and nice.
On Xmas, her second composition on the CD, Lynne certainly doesn’t do Christmas by rote and this dignified and very bluesy remembrance of childhood life in a difficult home of familial tensions is a slow punch on one’s heart. We hear “holiday cocktails make me forget the gifts that daddy never opened” and “daddy gets so mad ‘cause Christmas makes him sad” and then “O, Christmas” three times like a cry in darkness and then “merry Christmas to me” over and over with unforced irony and with pain barely restrained.
Next, Shelby Lynne belts and swings Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a straight-ahead tale, but this guy sounds like one very hip deer and one readily wonders if reindeer are doing the backup chorus. Her pouting closing line “O, baby I dig your nose” is so full of seductive feminine wiles that I suspect this dude Rudolf will soon have other reasons for walking on air. In Silent Night, Lynne again displays an instinct for making lyrics create a deeply felt and very present situation, one to which the singer is bound with profound emotional commitment. She sounds like a woman experiencing intense beauty beyond words, again in a very private experience which the singing allows us to share.
White Christmas is a pleasantly countrified version that doesn’t resort to sentiment and certainly not to cliché for this ubiquitous standard. Instead it ends this special collection like a remembrance over coffee between friends. It’s a refreshing version because Lynne’s inherent directness accepts no artifice when spontaneous truth of feeling will suffice in a real world. If you check out Shelby Lynne’s photo inside the CD jacket, you see eyes of haunted beauty that, in an uncompromising gaze, allow no mask on whatever they see. Such honesty makes for a uniquely open Christmas CD, one that does not avoid sorrow and, in turn, finds a gently-realized and earned happiness. On the Everso label.