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:
- Down And Dirty
- Pale Moon
- The Hard Way
- Tennessee Blues
- This Ain’t My Home
- Positively 4th Street
- Small Town Talk
- I Don’t Want To Know
- I Went To The Well
- Roll away The Stone
- Isn’t That Love
- The Stuff You Gotta Watch
- It Makes No Difference
- Let’s Go Home
- Rico Ferrara, January 2021
2 thoughts on “SHANNON McNALLY”
What a great back story to her recording career. Black Irish is amazing – now I’ll have to catch up on her catalogue.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Another “gem” revealed by BFBT. Thank you Rico. Her single, “Poor Man Blues”, has got me good, and now I must hear more. What a beautiful soul.
LikeLiked by 1 person