Gets Her Irish Up
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s hard to believe that Shannon McNally has been flying under the radar for about 20 years now. A strong-voiced songstress with a love of musical variety, she was signed up by Capitol Nashville in 1997 while still playing coffee houses and attending Franklin and Marshall College. Her acclaimed debut album Jukebox Sparrows was released in 2002, winning her opening spots on tours with John Mellencamp, Stevie Nicks and Ryan Adams.
In the years since, she has released more critically beloved albums such as Geronimo, North American Ghost Music, Coldwater and Small-Town Talk. She has worked with and befriended such legendary musicians as Willie Nelson, Levon Helm, Jim Keltner, Bobby Charles and many others. It is a diverse grouping of intriguing artists, people who experiment in many styles. Which is okay, if you want to piss off Shannon McNally, mention genres. It’s all music to her, and she will not dumb down her artistry to fit into cookie-cutter “styles.”
McNally’s latest album is Black Irish, which was produced by her good friend Rodney Crowell, who also wrote or co-wrote three songs. It is her first album in a few years, when real life intruded. McNally spent the time nursing her dying mother, being a mother and going through an ugly divorce. However, getting back in the studio with Crowell got the juices flowing and it was like she never left. McNally added a few original songs, as well as taking on covers of songs by Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Robertson and JJ Cale, coming up with arguably her strongest album yet.
In the weeks leading up to the release of Black Irish, we caught up with McNally on tour to tell us about her album and her career.
Black Irish is your first album in a few years. Why did you take some time off, and when did you know it was time to get back into the studio?
You never take real time off. The music never really stops. It’s not like you say, “Oh, I don’t think I’ll make a record this year.” The material just doesn’t present itself, or you’re doing other things. You’re living a life. I was living life.
Musically, you have a very diverse style, mixing country, rock, blues and folk. As a musician, do you enjoy playing with styles, or is that diversity just something that comes naturally as a singer/songwriter?
It just comes naturally. I just like what I like. There’s really only 12 notes in the western scale, so the idea that these things somehow are distinct categories is really silly. Blues and country and soul music – really, what’s the difference? Very little. Very little. So, I find genre to be really tedious.
Rodney Crowell is such a brilliant singer, songwriter and producer. How did you get involved with him, and what was he like to work with on the new album?
It was wonderful to work on this album with him. He and I have been friends for years. We’ve talked about doing a record for a long time, about five years. When finally the opportunity presented itself, we ran with it. Working with him is just wonderful. He’s a very strong producer with a clear vision, but he also lets things breathe and find their own space. He’s a great combination; he brings just enough form to it, and then inside that form there is plenty of space to create it.
I love “Banshee Moan,” which is I believe the only song you wrote together with Rodney on the album. What was the process of writing together like?
Working with him as a songwriter is pretty glorious. It’s just that he has an incredible way of… he’s just a master wordsmith. It’s exciting because he is so good at it. It’s hard not to learn from him.
I believe your last album was a tribute album to Bobby Charles. What is it like to go back to your own music, as well as several covers?
You know, I think of it all as my own music, because the idea… American music is based on interwoven styles. The folk tradition is about singing songs that exist and building on them. Moving through them and recreating them. This idea that everything is stagnant in individual boxes is really just a mechanism of making money. It has nothing to do with the medium. So, I did that Bobby Charles album Small Town Talk, I did that with Dr. John and with Bobby Charles. Walking true to that reality is very much an artistic thing. Those songs resonated with me as though I had written them. That’s why I sing them. I think as a songwriter it is important to sing other people’s material. Nobody does it because everybody wants to get paid on the publishing end, on the back end. That’s not an artistic decision. That’s a business decision. I think that as songwriters, everybody wants their songs to get cut. Well, you’ve got to give to get. You’ve got to sing other people’s songs and keep great songs alive, so at least you have some kind of gold standard against which to judge your own work.
I love your cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It,” which is a great song, but not necessarily the most obvious tune to cover in his songbook. Why did that song speak to you and what was it like to reinvent such a classic song?
It was thrilling. When you sing songs, you try to mingle with those spirits. It was very thrilling. It’s a great song to sing. It’s exciting. In essence, it’s a simple song, but Stevie brings so much authority to it that singing it is kind of revelatory. It’s about coming into your own power. That’s wonderful. Rodney suggested that song. He’s been a fan of it for very many years. I’m also a big fan of… you know, there are a number of records of Stevie Wonder done that are country, sort of a country record. Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Little Richard, Chuck Berry; those guys doing country records to me is like the ultimate of country music. You can’t really argue that they aren’t country. Nobody can argue that Muddy Waters wasn’t country. He was as deep country as it comes. The same with Chuck Berry. The same with Little Richard. Same with James Brown. They’re all country boys. Same with Tina Turner. So, again, this genre is so limiting. Really, I think genre needs to be completely ignored. So what, you put a pedal steel on a soul album. Or put a wah-wah pedal on a country record. It’s those artists that are really, truly stylistically integrated that are the ones that live forever.
Another person who has done many genres over the years, though she is thought of more as a pure country singer, is Emmylou Harris. You also did Emmylou’s “Prayer in Open D” on the new album. Was that on Rodney’s suggestion? I know they have worked together for many years.
No, that was my idea. Rodney and I talked songs back and forth. That was one of those songs where my mother… you know my mother recently passed away…
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that…
Breast cancer, yes. It was a long haul with her, helping her die. I divorced as well at the same time. If those kind of gigantic life occurrences don’t cut you back to the quick and see your most elemental self, then either you are a sociopath or you’re just not paying any kind of attention. You are so extracted that you’re not paying any attention to your life. But, life generally catches up with you. That song is about the beauty of the bottom and the rebuild.
You also recorded Susannah Clark’s “Black-Haired Boy.” Why did you want to do that song?
That was Rodney’s idea. I didn’t know Susannah. (Ed. Note: She was a songwriter and the wife of singer Guy Clark.) Rodney did; very well. Rodney very much seized on that song for me. They were good friends. That was the cradle of that Texas songwriter group: Townes Van Zandt; Steve Earle; Rodney Crowell; Susannah Clark; Guy Clark. There is a whole group of Texas songwriters that really in large part defined what we consider the deepest of soulful country. They were the generation after Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings. They were the next manifestation of that spirit of mental freedom. We talk about freedom a lot in this country, but we don’t talk about existential freedom. We don’t talk about mental freedom. They were existentialists, and on some level, they were mentally free. They were very bold. Who knows what freedom means anymore? If you are not mentally free of the constant distractions that we are all inundated with…
That song was really Rodney. He was very close with Susannah. He also wrote a song about her on his new record, which is a beautiful song. (Ed. Note: That song is called “Life Without Susannah” on Crowell’s latest album Close Ties.) She just passed away recently. He wrote a song about how she was sort of the muse of that group of writers. She held them to very high standards. They all worked very hard to… I guess… impress her. They all held her in very, very high regard. They loved her. So, really if you’re a fan of Townes Van Zandt, or Guy Clark, or Rodney Crowell, or Steve Earle… anybody from that generation of Texas songwriters, then you’re really a fan of Susannah Clark. That gets to the root of things. That was very exciting to me. I understand that distinction.
You have worked with and known some legendary country musicians – Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, Levon Helm – who wasn’t exactly country but had a great respect for the genre. None of them would be played on “country” radio anymore.
That doesn’t have anything to do with anything. Country music isn’t country music anymore. Country music is beer commercials. And computers. It’s just advertising. It’s not even music anymore. Levon Helm was as country as they come. That’s why the entire Americana thing is based on who is the primary Americana artist of the 20th century. They decided it was Levon Helm. Levon Helm grew up on a tractor in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. If that’s not country, there is no such thing as country. So, really what you’re talking about now is trademarking. We’re beyond art. We’re not talking about art. We’re talking about trademarking. We’re talking about commerce. We’re not talking about art. We’re not talking about human voices. We’re talking about something else.
The word you’re looking for is Americana. Country is a term that really should be struck from the English language. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. It just doesn’t mean anything anymore. I live in North Mississippi, in hill country. You can’t get any more country than that, you know? People who are drinking out of their own well and raising their own animals. Living off steer and gardens. These are country people. They always look that way. To exclude them from the quote-unquote “genre” of country music is absurd. It is disrespectful to any idea of what we think of as country music. Johnny Cash would puke in your general direction. What are we talking about? Willie Nelson…. What’s country? Country is saving the American farm land. That’s country. It’s not about selling.
It’s not about short shorts and beer, which is what all the new songs seem to be about…
Yeah. They’re not about anything. They’re about easy money. Fast money. They might as well be coke dealers.
I loved the show you did in Ardmore last week. You and Brett Hughes have good chemistry. How long have you been playing with him?
Brett Hughes is great. He’s very lovely and we do have some good chemistry. We’ve been playing off and on together for years. Over a decade. We know each other quite well. He brings to it a sense of real comfort. Being onstage is a very weird thing to do for a living. Getting up in front of a room full of people: make them laugh; make them cry; make them think; make them feel; make them forget. All of that is a giant, energetic undertaking. All of those things take an enormous amount of personal energy. With Brett, it works because he’s a great musician. A great singer and a great guitar player, and a front man on his own right. What that brings to me is a sense of ease and comfort. I don’t have to worry about that.
You grew up in the north in New York and Pennsylvania, and yet you’ve got a Southern accent. What’s the deal with that?
Well, I have a mixture of an accent. I’ve lived in the south for 20 years.
I totally get that. My mother was born in Louisiana, but has been up north since she was a teen and has no southern accent…
Right, but when she goes back to Louisiana and talks to her people, it starts to come out, I bet.
There are things that bring your accent out. If you’re from Louisiana and go up north, I’m sure once you start talking about food and certain events and certain types of things, the accent comes out. Or you have a glass of wine. The same thing with a northern accent. Once I start… I don’t know. It comes and goes.
Black Irish is on the indie Compass label. You have released other indies as well as working with Capitol in Nashville for years. How is working on an indie different than on a major label, for better and for worse?
With a major label, there can be more money, but you have to jump through so many hoops that you’re not often left with much. And everybody wants to insert their opinion on everything. So, unless you’re above that, like you’re some massive artist, I don’t know. The major label system is so weird. It’s now all corporate. It’s a bunch of people sitting around a table, making a whole bunch of decisions for you and with you. Who knows? Who cares? But, there’s money. It just depends on what you want at the end of the day. And major labels tend to kill plenty of things. It’s like weeding a budget. Kill everything out. Prevent it, kill it, so their one little pride and joy will live. They do that all the time. You never know what side of that you’re going to end up on. And you never know who is making the decisions. Everybody responds to truly soulful music, but then they want to somehow pick what is easiest. Good stuff just doesn’t come easy. You have to grow into it. You have to grow into yourself as an artist. There’s no way around it.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 29, 2017.
Photos © 2017 Jim Rinaldi. All rights reserved.