As Jordyn Shellhart pulls up in her big, green truck, heads turn. Her less-than-100lb frame barely reaches the top of the bench seat, and if not for her arm hanging casually out the window (a necessity without AC in the south), one might think that the truck was driving itself.
There is perhaps no better metaphor for Shellhart than that truck. It is the last thing anyone would expect her to drive, and yet becomes the only thing that could suit her properly upon seeing it.
A similar reaction transpires when people first hear Shellhart's music. In a cultural time and place where girls in their twenties are expected to think a certain way and care about certain things, Shellhart is a concoction of equal parts surprise and refreshment.
Perhaps in part due to her vast range of influences, Shellhart is hard to peg. Raised on Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard, her roots are unmistakable. She was re-shaped as a lyricist by writers like Lori McKenna, Gretchen Peters, Brandy Clark, and Jason Isbell, inspired as a musician by the likes of John Mayer, Frank Ocean, David Gray, and Lauryn Hill, and then challenged and completely turned inside-out by hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and J. Cole. The result is a collocation of musical styles to form an honest foundation, effortless pop sensibilities and the boldness to say what she wants to say, even (and especially), when no one else is.
Reading down the list of subject matters in Shellhart's set is like reading a list of taboo topics in mainstream music. But with each song written about Shellhart herself, they seem straight out of a diary far more than the pulpit. They are simply narratives about her life, a testament to all the life she’s lived in 23 years. Delivered from the perspective of a young, American millennial living in 2017, there's a lightness that accompanies the weight of what Shellhart sends through the speakers.
"My friend told me once when I was getting all this pushback about my songs being 'too deep' or 'too heady,' 'Jordyn, you know how when you give a dog medicine, you have to wrap it in cheese to make them eat it? Maybe you've just gotta wrap whatever medicine you think the world needs in some cheese.' So, that's what I tried to do."
Aside from the medicine wrapped in cheese, Shellhart's short career boasts the accumulation of multiple credits as a songwriter. The artists that have recorded her songs are as different as night and day: from legend and hall of famer Don Williams ("I Won't Give Up On You"), to country-pop star Kelsea Ballerini ("Secondhand Smoke"), to indie darling Logan Brill featuring Charlie Worsham ("I Wish You Loved Me") and most recently, Americana crooner Dustin Christenson featuring Mindy Smith ("Off and On"). As divergent as the artists are, there's a common theme running seamlessly through each track; Shellhart’s stamp always makes itself known.
Having spent over half her life writing songs and over a third of her life writing songs professionally, her unique take on penning music shouldn't come as much of a shock. But it does, every time.
"I had to ask myself: Who am I making music for? I had been trying to write songs for other people to sing, but I kept saying things that only I would sing. I would write all these songs and they would just live and die on the computers at my publishing company. Not because no one liked them, but because there were no artists who would record them. They were homeless. I realized that the only person who could give them a home was me."
Shellhart is no stranger to the world of being the face and voice of her own songs. She signed a publishing deal with Sea Gayle Music at 14, inked a major record deal with Columbia Records at 15, released a nationally distributed acoustic EP the same year, toured across the country, debuted at the Grand Ole Opry on her 16th birthday, worked with some of Nashville's most acclaimed producers and wrote with the heaviest hitters in town.
Widely hailed as "the next Taylor Swift," many predicted superstardom for Shellhart early on. But with the perfect storm of things gone wrong converging, including completely losing her voice for a year and a half, her trajectory to the big time came to a screeching halt.
“I was told I had an incurable, neurological vocal condition; basically, I thought I would never sing again.”
She lost her record deal and momentum and spent the subsequent years watching her life unfold like pages in a book she never would have written herself.
"This truck," she says of the GMC with a Chevy grill, "It was my brother's who passed away, so I'll never get rid of it. I'm gonna drive that thing into the ground and then keep the parts until I can afford for someone to rebuild it. It makes weird noises, it’s terrible on gas and has no AC, but there are things worth suffering for. That's a silly example of suffering, but it's still true."
Shellhart now regards those "lost years,” when no one heard from her and she was peppered with questions about whether she was even still a musician at all, as one of those things. Against all odds, the incurable was cured and her voice returned.
"I write the songs I write because I know darkness and I know light. I don’t want to shy away from either of them. I thought music was the most important thing in my life and I lost it. Then Jesus found me and gave it back with a new understanding of why I sing and pretty much everything else. God is in the business of redemption, so here I am.”
Armed with every lesson learned and life experiences far beyond her years, she marches forward, pen, paper and guitar in hand. Thus, Jordyn Shellhart “The Artist” is reborn.
"I don't really have a plan from here. But remember the question I asked myself? Who am I making music for?' I figured out the answer: whoever needs to hear it. It's not my responsibility to decide who that is or to scramble to reach a certain audience. I'm rhyming words about my life, singing them, and trusting that these songs will end up in the headphones of exactly the right someone."