Blows Against The Empire

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The Nashville skyline beckons like a shimmering Oz to lots of young country musicians, but for Shelby Lynne and Neko Case, it's a cityscape better seen from a rearview mirror. Working outside the country- music capital, the two singer-songwriters have each released breakthrough albums that go to the heart of Nashville by redefining what a country song can be.

Lynne's new work, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island DefJam), takes its name from the closing line of a letter she wrote to her manager just before she moved out of Nashville. "I wanted to thank him for letting me be me," Lynne recalls. That was no easy job. Lynne is a native Virginian raised in Alabama who came to Nashville at 18 to sing country standards. Her bright, diamond-hard voice attracted immediate attention. She recorded five albums for four different labels, weaving torch, twang, swing and blues into genre-crossing numbers that were occasionally brilliant but often jarring. None connected with mainstream buyers. So in 1998 Lynne's exile took her to Palm Springs, Calif., where freedom from the industry grinder gave her room to find her voice. The songs that became I Am sound liberated, loose and confident. "I had given it all up," says, Lynne, 31, "so I wasn't scared of much. I got more comfortable with my writing." I Am extends country's reach to the threshold of rock and Memphis soul, incorporating unlikely touches of Dusty Springfield and John Lennon on the jilted lover's lament Your Lies and of Aretha Franklin on the empty-bed ode Black Light Blue.

Drumming in a punk-rock band might not seem like the proper training ground for a would-be country star, but it was just right for Neko Case (pronounced nee-ko). After several years of knocking around Seattle's punk scene, Case, 29, has released Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot), a turbulent, swift-flowing record that proves the two genres are closer than you might think. Her vocals often sound like a night at the Grand Ole Opry--spiked with punkish energy. "Country in its pure form is very punk," Case says. "They're both about passionate, poor people, and they're both very do-it-yourself."

Like Lynne, Case was born in Virginia, where she grew up listening to Patsy Cline and developed a powerful sympathy for working folks. She recently relocated to Chicago from Seattle because, she says, "all there is in Seattle anymore is money. What I do isn't popular in the world of money. I don't need to justify it." That attitude should serve her well. As Nashville fattens its wallet--and cheapens its legacy--by going pop, Case and Lynne are blazing a trail that makes country music a little safer for innovation.