Since taking home Best New Artist honors at the 43rd Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2001, Southern singer/songwriter (and older sister of alt-country artist Allison Moorer) Shelby Lynne has been prolific yet unpredictable. After releasing a pair of self-produced albums in 2003 and 2005 — Identity Crisis and Suit Yourself, respectively — she portrayed Johnny Cash's mother Carrie in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line.
Three years later, the Alabama native paid tribute to Dusty Springfield with 2008's acclaimed Just A Little Lovin': Inspired By Dusty Springfield. And since 2010 she has added the role of indie label head to her résumé with the launch of Everso Records. To date, she has released four albums on Everso: 2010's Tears, Lies And Alibis and Merry Christmas, the latter marking her first-ever holiday collection; 2011's Revelation Road; and 2012's Revelation Road Deluxe Edition, a boxed set that includes a live album, a live DVD and a documentary on the making of Revelation Road.
On Dec. 10 Everso and Lynne will release Thanks, a five-song EP of original gospel songs. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Lynne discussed what prompted her to record a spiritual album, what it's like running her own record label, and "doing her duty."
This is your first foray into gospel music. What prompted it?
It's fun to write songs with Bible references because they say the Bible's poetic. The music's just gospel music. It kind of comes natural. It's just five tunes where I'm doing what comes natural. … Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and James Brown — all those guys that were our soul pioneers and taught us why we love Muscle Shoals and Memphis — they came out of the church. I mean, people still go back and listen to Wilson Pickett, who was making music 40, 50 years ago. And you know what? Forty years from now people are still going to go back and listen to Wilson Pickett. They're what made us listen, and they still move us. And they came out of the church, the gospel tradition.
You're not known as a gospel artist. Did you also come out of the church, growing up in Alabama?
You don't have to go to church to sing gospel music. There's something about the blues and soul and gospel that make them kind of double first cousins or something. They're all in there together on this EP. The only explanation I have is that I made this music because it moved me.
You've called the album Thanks, and the last track is also titled "Thanks." Are you at a point in your life or career where you're particularly grateful? Is there something personal happening that you're feeling thankful about?
I've always been grateful and thankful. And I'm very grateful in my personal life right now, but that has nothing to do with the music. What happens is, everything you're feeling in your life comes out in your art.
Is it possible you'll reach a new audience with this music, an audience that's more tuned in to gospel music? Is that something you're hoping for or expecting?
I don't have expectations for my music. I just let it find its way. You know, if you expect something you're probably setting yourself up for not getting it. So I just kind of try to be free and make music that moves me, that I think is beautiful. Because if I'm moved, most likely you're going to be moved, too. I try not to worry about record sales … that's not why I make records, and it's not why I write songs. I never cared about sales or charts. My music is for a few people, to make a few people feel good. If those few people get something out of it then you know what? I feel like I've done my duty.
Do you think it will lead you in a new direction, where you want to write and record more gospel music?
I guess I just want everyone to dig it. And what I'm saying is, I made it for the people who have stuck with me for 27 years. I'm always happy about putting new music out, and I'm always hoping people will dig it. What I don't like is having to explain it to people. … I'm always hoping people can dive in and find their own explanation without me doing it for them. I hope when you hear the song you go, "That's my world. I hear my world in that song."
What's it like running your own record label?
There's nothing easy about it. It's hard as hell. But it's just what I'm doing right now. Nobody's buying records anymore. And you have to listen to what the world is saying. If nobody's buying records anymore, you have to figure something else out.
Are you signing any new artists to Everso?
I'm not signing anyone right now because there's no money. That's the honest answer. You can't sign a bunch of acts if you don't have anything to put them out with. Right now I'm trying to establish myself, get myself in a position where I have a lot of records. I'm proud of what I'm building. And I'm making a living as an independent.
Do you hope to eventually sign other artists?
I can't predict or plan anything. Hopefully I just appreciate every hour. … It's pretty simple. You put out what your heart tells you. I'm led by my heart. And if my heart's feeling good, then I know I'm doing something right.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.)