Memphis Belles

2.26.2008

By Aaron Hicklin

It's only the half of it to say there's a neat symmetry in having a tortured, tough, diffident woman from the South place her stamp on songs made famous by a tortured, tough, diffident woman from England. Lynne, whose late-'90s breakthrough, I Am Shelby Lynne, earned comparisons to Springfield for its pop-soul-country balancing act, has dodged and weaved the easy categorizations that the industry favors. Like Springfield, she's the kind of musician who travels from label to label with the prefix 'difficult' attached, though she thinks her new label, Lost Highway, may be the exception in an industry run by bean counters. 'It's a business where if you're not the cookie-cutter perfect thing, you find yourself standing out there alone,' she says. 'I guess it's about having to put your dukes up and protecting yourself because you have to keep going. You can't put the fire out; it's the music that drives you.'

Springfield knew how to put her dukes up, all right. Like Lynne, she could come across as shy and awkward in interviews, but feisty when she wanted to be. Touring South Africa in 1964, she was expelled for refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences. In 1970 she told a British paper that she was 'perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy,' which required a kind of bravery that today's crop of musicians can barely imagine. The film writer-director Jessica Sharzer, who is working on a Dusty biopic starring Kristin Chenoweth, believes the contradictions are what make Springfield such a compelling study. 'She was a revolutionary and a renegade, and I admire her for that,' she says. 'But she also suffered under the weight of the mask she created for herself, and there's a cautionary aspect to her story.'

Although the movie is currently beset by labor disputes, Sharzer, who has written two drafts of it for Universal Studios, says that Springfield's sexuality is critical to the story and won't be ducked -- if, that is, it makes it over the hurdles to come. 'She's a woman, she's British, and she's a lesbian,' says Sharzer, neatly summing up the movie's perceived liabilities. 'If you look at biopics about women, almost all of them have a man playing a central role. Dusty's story doesn't have that.'

No, but it does have drama. And passion. And great, great music. It's impossible to listen to Springfield without appreciating that, for some musicians, music is not simply a vocation but an exorcism and an escape as well. In an interview she gave shortly before her death in 1999, Springfield recalled how the young Mary O'Brien (her given name) faced a starkly simple choice as a teenager: 'Be miserable or be someone else.' She chose to be someone else'mascara, blond bob, and all. Her reinvention was our gain.

Lynne, whose father shot her mom and then killed himself in front of her, also uses music as a conduit for cauterizing her darkest thoughts. Though often described as a confessional singer, it's not the songs but the way she sings them that counts. 'This new record is all about feel,' she clarifies. 'We just put together a killer band, and we'd pick a key and find a groove, and I would start singing, and they'd fall in around me like great, great cake batter. I think it's the only record I've made in my career so far that has a real, continuous thread -- it goes and it flows, like great records are supposed to.'

Read Out's picks for the essential Dusty Springfield, plus three other Tennessee sisters who belong on your shelves.

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