Shannon McNally holds a special place in that she was the last act I booked, (for The Beaches International Jazz Festival), before I stepped away completely from the business in 2018. My decision to book her came after countless listenings to three of her CD’s: “Small Town Talk”, “Geronimo”, and “Black Irish”. All are excellent albums featuring great songwriting, musicianship, and production values. But what really stands out on all of them is McNally’s bluesy, earthy voice complete with a distinct Country lilt.

On the day in question, Shannon was backed by a talented Canadian band, (assembled by Shannon’s friend, the soulful Canadian singer / songwriter Erin Costelo), that played all the selections flawlessly. It was an outstanding show with Shannon on rhythm guitar and vocals leading the band through a mix of her own material and covers. And, once again, it was her vocals that drew me in. As good as they are on her recordings, live they were more supple and freer.

Capping off the experience, I had an opportunity to meet and spend a few quality minutes with Shannon after her show. What took me by surprise was her relaxed Southern demeanor. I say “surprise” because Shannon grew up in Long Island NY. (What I obviously didn’t take into account is that she has spent a good part of her adult life in Southern locales like Nashville – her home at the time – New Orleans, and Holly Springs Mississippi). Being immersed in Southern life brought to light a certain gentility or refinement I’ve come to associate with those from the Southern U.S. And, although her material can be hard and tough at times, that same trait shines through in her work.

I was late to the party when I picked up the aforementioned CD’s in 2017. That is,  McNally released her first CD, “Jukebox Sparrows”, in 2002 and has a total of 11 albums and 5 ep’s to her credit. Knowing that and taking her obvious talent into account, it’s surprising that McNally isn’t more widely known and highly regarded. (In fact, Rodney Crowell, who produced the excellent “Black Irish”, had not heard of Shannon before being introduced to her by John Leventhal).

Shannon first started singing and playing guitar at home with her guitar playing father. She grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Nina Simone, The Band, Emmylou Harris, and the uncompromising PJ Harvey. All those influences and more would seep into her work as she matured as a musician and artist.

The more that I read about McNally and the more of her music that I heard, an overarching mindset kept coming to forefront – that is, Shannon McNally is fearless. I got the sense that a tough minded McNally has no problem pushing herself forward. And rightfully so; there’s little flash here; it’s all substance. In short, Shannon’s got the goods and she’s well aware of it.

McNally’s various collaborators over the course of her career surely appreciated her talent as well. Associations with the likes of Charlie Sexton, Rodney Crowell, Dr. John, Bobby Charles, Jim Dickinson, and Mark Bingham could be intimidating to some but not McNally. In every instance McNally, no doubt, leaned on their expertise, to put the best possible Shannon McNally product forward.

As varied as those alliances are, so too is the final product of each of McNally’s releases. All the albums beg to be heard in their entirety – from the opening track on “Jukebox Sparrows” – “Down And Dirty”, (a McNally original) – through to the closing cut on “Black Irish” – McNally’s ambitious take on The Staples’ “Let’s Go Home”. But some titles stand above the rest; namely, “Geronimo”, “Cold Water”, “Western Ballad”, “Small Town Talk”, and “Black Irish”.

Shannon was frustrated that it took Capitol almost five years to release her debut “Jukebox Sparrows” that was cut in L.A. Although recorded with some top flights musicians including Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz, and Billy Payne, L.A. proved to be a foreign environment for McNally’s Southern sensibilities. On the other side, there was a disconnect because Capitol didn’t know how to promote McNally, who didn’t fit into a specific musical category. To right the situation, the label made it known that they would like her to record her next project in L.A. in a Sheryl Crow / Shelby Lynne vein using one of the label’s producers in doing so.

As you might expect this didn’t sit well with McNally. In the course of the ensuing negotiation, as a trade-off, McNally opted for less money so that she could make an album of her liking with a producer of her choice. The result was “Geronimo” produced by Texas guitar stalwart, and Bob Dylan sideman, Charlie Sexton. Cut in New Orleans, “Geronimo” is an Alt Country / Pop masterwork. More Lucinda Williams than Sheryl Crow, the release has Shannon displaying a wide range of styles on a dozen numbers, (ten originals), including one of her best, the tender “Pale Moon”, and a laconic version of Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues” that presaged her all-out tribute to the man that would follow some years later. (“Geronimo” would signal the end of her Capitol recording contract as well as serving as her last record on a major label).

“Coldwater” began as an opportunity to take her then working band – including Eric Deaton the fine Hill Country guitar player – into the studio. Living in Holly Springs Mississippi, Shannon decided to record the album at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch located in Coldwater Mississippi – hence the title. Using her trio augmented by Dickinson on keys, McNally put any Pop tendencies aside to lay down a set of greasy Blues / Country Soul. The opening track “This Ain’t My Home” sets the tone and the rest of the recording doesn’t waiver from there, and falls in line. Of note is that while McNally takes credit as producer, Dickinson’s fingerprints are all over the disc giving it a new found immediacy and demo-like feel. There are only eight songs in total, (including five McNally originals and a moving reading of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”), but more than enough to make a powerful statement.

“Western Ballad” stands in stark contrast to anything else that Shannon McNally has recorded. The project started with Shannon returning to New Orleans to woodshed with cult artist and producer Mark Bingham at his Piety Street Recording studio. Instead, their efforts resulted in nine co-writes for a textured release that refuses to be categorized. In addition to vocals – more subdued than we’re accustomed to hearing from McNally – Shannon also takes over lead guitar duties on a set of haunting melodies in an unhurried affair mixing easy-going Country, ¾ time ballads, and jangling Folk inflected Rock. The title song is a seemingly unlikely choice of Allen Ginsberg poetry set within the musical margins of a Soul ballad. But, it works superbly in the overall context of a release that’s all about feel.

McNally and Bobby Charles met back in 2002, became friends, and hatched the idea of Shannon recording a set of Bobby Charles songs centred on his ’72 self-titled release on Bearsville. With Charles’ blessing and producer Dr. John’s guiding hand they deviated from the script somewhat to include lesser known Charles compositions as well. Backed primarily by Dr. John’s Lower 911 band, and with the support of many and varied guests, they deliver authoritative and sometimes playful interpretations that would have made the King Of Swamp Rock smile. A personal favourite is McNally’s handling of “I Don’t Want To Know” where she bumps up the Country in the Country Soul song.

Shannon McNally first worked with Roots master Rodney Crowell when recording a duet with him on a selection from his “Tarpaper Sky” release – “Famous Last Words Of A Fool”. From there they exchanged ideas that culminated in Crowell bringing her to Nashville to record “Black Irish”.

Leaving the project in a sympathetic Crowell’s capable hands resulted in what may be McNally’s most fully realized work. Here, surrounded by top shelf Nashville musicians playing on an eclectic assortment of tunes – to whit, what other records feature the works of Stevie Wonder, J.J. Cale, Muddy Waters, The Band, and The Staple Singers? Highlights abound: there’s the lowdown blues of “I Went To The Well” written by Shannon and Garry Burnside (R.L.’s youngest son), the heat that McNally brings to the Southern rocker “Roll Away The Stone”, the tenderness of Crowell’s “Isn’t That Love”, and lots and lots more. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Shannon’s fine rendition of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”. While Shannon’s vocal can’t compare to Rick Danko’s, on arguably Robbie Robertson’s finest composition – in truth, whose can? – McNally’s version stands on its own merit; it’s beautiful and full of ache.

“Black Irish”, (and her other recorded works), place Shannon McNally on the “A” list of Roots / Americana artists. It’s as simple as that.

Suggested Shannon McNally Playlist:

  1. Down And Dirty
  2. Pale Moon
  3. The Hard Way
  4. Tennessee Blues
  5. This Ain’t My Home
  6. Positively 4th Street
  7. Small Town Talk
  8. I Don’t Want To Know
  9. I Went To The Well
  10.  Roll away The Stone
  11.  Isn’t That Love
  12.  The Stuff You Gotta Watch
  13.  It Makes No Difference
  14.  Let’s Go Home
  • Rico Ferrara, January 2021

Willy DeVille – Gypsy King Of Hearts

Laying all the cards on the table, this is an unapologetic tribute to Willy DeVille. That being said, the account covers a highly productive period of DeVille’s career stretching from 1977 through to the early 2000’s, (including his work with the Mink DeVille Band 1974-1986).

It’s truly unfortunate that an outstanding singer, songwriter, guitar player, and band leader such as DeVille never received the recognition in North America that he enjoyed in Europe. When he died on August 6, 2009 at 59 of pancreatic cancer, North American audiences, in general, probably weren’t aware that the music world had lost an exceptional talent.

I first heard DeVille in 1977 on a Q-107 “new music” segment. I don’t quite recall the DJ that was promoting him – it might have been Bob Mackowycz – but he played 3 tracks from “Cabretta”, the first Mink DeVille album. The first cut, Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” struck me as someone channelling John Lee Hooker. The next, Willy’s own “Spanish Stroll” reeked of New York, complete with a Lou Reed “Walk On The Wild Side” like chorus and sneer. The final selection, a DeVille rocker “She’s So Tough”, revealed yet another Willy DeVille – sturdy yet vulnerable. In addition to being blown away by every track, my initial thought was “how many voices does this guy have?” I was an immediate fan and would go on to not only buy “Cabretta” but, in time, also several more Mink / Willy DeVille albums. And, heeding the DJ’s advice to see Willy anywhere and anytime availability permitted, I would catch Willy whenever he came to town.

William Paul Borsey Jr. was born in Stamford Connecticut on August 25, 1950. He left high school at 16 to follow in the varied footsteps of his heroes. His musical tastes both ran deep and were far ranging. Drawn initially to the blues of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, DeVille was also influenced by The Drifters and bluesman and slide guitar player John Hammond Jr. These two somewhat dissimilar artists played a major role in the shaping of the DeVille persona. Willy said of The Drifters – who would have a marked and lasting effect on his music – “It was like magic; there was drama, and it would hypnotize me”. And DeVille – who started out as a singer, and didn’t pick up the guitar till his late teens – stated that he owed a large debt to Hammond, citing Hammond’s 1965 album “So Many Roads,” (that featured members of The Band plus Michael Bloomfield), as “changing my life”.

Willy DeVille’s musically inspired odyssey began in New York. It included a stop in London England and a return to New York, before venturing to San Francisco where he would form the first incarnation of the Mink Deville Band in 1973, (or Billy de Sade & The Marquis as they were originally called).

Not satisfied with the 70’s scene in San Francisco, he convinced the band to follow him back to New York. Once there, the Mink DeVille Band quickly established themselves. Following a successful audition, the band went on to stand as CBGB’s house band from 1975 through 1977. CBGB’s, (an acronym for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues), ironically was one of, if not the prime, venue where Punk Rock was born. Adding further irony to the situation, is that while Willy and the band were a product of NY’s Punk scene, and certainly shared Punk’s energy, the similarities stopped there. Instead, DeVille’s sound was an amalgam of gritty NY Rock mixed with old time R&B, Doo Wop, and Latin tinged Soul. And, DeVille’s chameleon like vocals served as the glue that held everything together.

DeVille’s significant skills didn’t go unnoticed. Already displaying a fully formed heart rending slow drag / ballad style, Willy came to the attention of the one and only Doc Pomus, who dropped by CBGB’s to check him out. Pomus, who wrote countless hits for artists including Ray Charles, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Elvis Presley, and Dion & The Belmonts, was immediately taken with DeVille’s vocals. Upon meeting Willy, Pomus introduced himself, and quickly got down to business: “I love the way you sing babe… Maybe we can write some songs together… I’m in the phone book under Jerome Pomus… Give me a call”. Wow!

At the same time, DeVille also came to the attention of Capitol Records who would sign him to his first recording contract and release three excellent Mink DeVille albums: the aforementioned “Cabretta” plus “Return To Magenta”, and “Le Chat Bleu”. All three rate as 5 star recordings but the pure artistry of 1979’s “Le Chat Bleu” sets it apart from its predecessors.

“Le Chat Bleu” would mark the first time that Pomus / DeVille co-writes would appear on an album. Recorded in Paris, (so that DeVille could use Jean Claude Petite, renowned for the string arrangements on French torch singer Edith Piaf’s recordings), the album features 3 compositions penned by DeVille and Pomus, (all stunning ballads): “That World Outside”, “You Just Keep Holding On”, and “Just To Walk That Little Girl Home”.

The album’s resultant overall sound, (with its elaborate orchestration, strings, and accordion), was one that the Capitol brass was certain would not sell in North America. Consequently, they refused to release it outside of Europe – a decision that resulted in an abrupt about face when, as an import, “Le Chat Bleu” outsold both “Cabretta” and “Return To Magenta” combined. The positive response of the North American release was found in not only comparatively significant sales and radio play, but critical attention as well. Case in point, Rolling Stone named “Le Chat Bleu” # 5 album and DeVille as the # 1 vocalist in its’ year-end review.

Despite the success of “Le Chat Bleu”, a combination of personal and business associated problems would result in DeVille severing ties with Capitol. Luckily, one of the champions of NY R&B, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records, was accepting of Willy’s personal challenges as a trade-off for his prodigious talent. And Atlantic was rewarded artistically with 2 superlative efforts of the 3 releases on the label: “Coup De Grace” and “Where Angels Fear To Tread”.

“Coup De Grace” is a logical extension to “Le Chat Bleu”, and features Willy’s outstanding takes on Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Eddie Hinton’s “Help Me Make It”. “Where Angels Fear To Tread” contains selections like “Demasiado Corazon” that foreshadow Willy’s distinctive style, that one critic described as “Spanish Americana”, and that would be fleshed out in future releases.

After leaving Atlantic, with the exception of 1987’s “Miracle” on A&M – the first album under his own name – Willy would not record again with a major label. “Miracle”, (cut in London with Mark Knofler in the producer’s chair as well as guesting on the release), includes what is probably DeVille’s best known song, “Storybook Love”. The song served as the theme of the movie “The Princess Bride” and was nominated for an Academy Award. DeVille even performed the song at the Academy Awards ceremony.

Over the course of the rest of his career Willy DeVille would record in various locales both in the U.S. and Europe. Each of the ensuing 10 albums, (plus 2 live posthumous releases), have something to recommend them. And, three stand as some of DeVille’s best work: “Victory Mixture” (1990) recorded in New Orleans, “Backstreets Of Desire” (1994) recorded in Los Angeles, and “Horse Of A Different Colour” (2001) recorded in Memphis.

DeVille relocated to New Orleans in 1988. In tribute to his new found home, Willy decided to cover songs from New Orleans’ rich R&B history. As part of that plan, he invited some of the musicians who were on the original recordings to play on the sessions. When his offer wasn’t met with a lot of interest by the leery musicians, DeVille asked Dr. John, (Mac Rebennack), to act as an intermediary, and talk to them on his behalf. Dr. John told them, (paraphrasing because neither you nor I are likely to understand The Good Doctor’s unique street jargon): “He doesn’t have to use you guys; he wants to do it so you’ll get paid this time”. In response, Allen Toussaint, Earl King, and Eddie Bo, among others, agreed to play on the joyous, live-off-the-floor recording. Selections include Ernie K-Doe’s “Hello My Lover”, Irma Thomas’ “Ruler Of My Heart”, and Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues.”

“Backstreets Of Desire” is considered by many to be one of DeVille’s very best. Dedicated to the memory of Doc Pomus, the album draws on a number of DeVille’s influences while delivering a mixed bag of musical styles that Willy handles authoritatively. Utilizing the talents of a variety of top notch musicians such as Dr. John, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, DeVille leads the way through selections that include the broken hearted ballad “Empty Heart”, the Latin Soul of “Bamboo Road”, and the Memphis funk of “Come To Poppa”. From start to finish, every track’s a killer.

I could easily be convinced to pronounce the masterful “Horse Of A Different Colour” Willy DeVille’s finest hour. If not his best, it certainly isn’t surpassed by anything else he committed to tape. The album is helmed by eccentric producer Jim Dickinson and backed by a peerless band consisting of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios rhythm section, Dickinson’s sons (Luther and Cody of North Mississippi All-Stars renown), Dickinson himself, and choice Memphis musicians. Against that backdrop, every track contributes to a now fully developed realization of DeVille’s “Spanish Americana”.

Starting with the opener “Gypsy Deck Of Hearts”, a number of the songs fit comfortably into DeVille’s Spanish Soul bag. But the set, punctuated with shades of Hill Country blues (“Goin’ Over The Hill”), chain gang laments (“18 Hammers”), and dirty R&B (“Bacon Fat”), is far more than that. For instance, DeVille gives Ry Cooder and Harry Dean Stanton’s “Across The Borderline” an understated reading filled with resignation and just a hint of hope. And Willy injects a heart full of pain into a minimalist version of Jackie DeShannon’s “Needles And Pins. In short, “Horse Of A Different Colour” is a brilliant recording that begs to be heard.

Not including compilations, Willy DeVille released 19 albums in the course of his 35 year career. I would venture to guess that none of them have been hugely successful on this side of the Atlantic. DeVille isn’t the first artist to suffer the fate of little recognition and appreciation at home; but it doesn’t diminish his substantial talent that’s been confirmed in his musical statements.

If you’re not familiar with Willy DeVille, Google him; YouTube him; Spotify him. Or better yet, buy one of his albums. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Suggested Willy DeVille Playlist:

  1. Venus Of Avenue D
  2. Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl
  3. Cadillac Walk
  4. Spanish Stroll
  5. She’s So Tough
  6. Guardian Angel
  7. Soul Twist
  8. “A” Train Lady
  9. This Must Be The Night
  10. Savoir Faire
  11. That World Outside
  12. Just To Walk That Little Girl Home
  13. Turn You Every Way But Loose
  14. Heaven Stood Still
  15. Just Give Me One Good Reason
  16. Help Me Make It
  17. You Better Move On
  18. Demasiado Corazon
  19. Hello My Lover
  20. Bamboo Road
  • Rico Ferrara, January 2021