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It's unlikely that anyone has ever looked more pissed-off about winning a "Best New Artist" Grammy than Shelby Lynne did three years ago. But if the Alabama-born singer-songwriter showed none of the "Oh my God, you guys!" giddiness of a Christina Aguilera, it might be because Lynne was not really a new artist when she won the award. She had already been through the record industry meatgrinder for more than 10 years, and it must have stung her to know that most people considered her sixth album - on her fourth record label - to be her debut.

That album, I Am Shelby Lynne, did represent a rebirth for Lynne, because after years of compromised country albums (and the sporadically successful 1993 Western Swing experiment, Temptation), she finally found her sound: a wonderfully idiosyncratic combination of tacky '80s beatbox rhythms and acoustic guitars, layers of blue-eyed soul harmonies, and string charts right out of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe."

Unfortunately, Lynne followed I Am with a blatant commercial move, hiring hack producer Glen Ballard and striking coy cover-photo poses in her tattered Daisy Dukes, for the 2001 release, Love, Shelby. While not the complete washout some critics would claim it to be, Love strained too hard to be upbeat and assured, and Ballard's big, bland settings encouraged Lynne's worst blues-mama tendencies.

Now, with Identity Crisis, Lynne has made the rightful sequel to I Am. Stripping the music down to her own guitar and voice, with discrete touches of standup bass, piano and handclaps, Lynne sings her tales of heartbreak and regret with exquisite, understated grace. This album was made without the distractions - and loaded expectations - of a label deal, and without any outside production assistance. It teems with the ease of a front porch demo, and a songwriting depth that Lynne has only hinted at before.

Whether she's tackling Southern gospel ("10 Rocks"), jazzy pop ("Baby"), cocktail balladry ("If I Were Smart"), or revisiting her country roots ("Lonesome"), Lynne sounds like a prodigious talent who has solved her identity crisis. •

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