Elmore writer Jim Hynes sat (appropriately enough) in an Irish pub across the street from the Ardmore Music Hall where Shannon McNally and her accompanying guitarist, Brett Hughes, were to perform. Hynes last saw McNally when she released Coldwater in 2009. As you will see, an ebullient McNally was clearly excited about both her upcoming record and returning to the road. Here’s their conversation.
Elmore- You’re still living in Mississippi, right?
Shannon McNally-Yes, but I’m in Oxford now; not out in the country (Holly Springs) like I was before. You can walk to restaurants and stores here.
E – You grew upon Long Island but have lived in New Orleans and now Mississippi for years now. What has living in the South brought to you musically?
SM –I like all parts of the country. New Orleans, I don’t consider the South; it’s a melding of many cultures at the top of the Caribbean. I love it but it’s not the South. You can’t live in the South without realizing and feeling the ghosts of slavery. The South can’t escape its history, and it just continues to reverberate around you. That pain and suffering is still here and it inevitably impacts your music, because music is a medium.
E- You did release two very good and different albums since Coldwater – Western Ballad, and Small Town Talk –The Songs of Bobby Charles. The former was a co-write and very different from either Coldwater or Small Town Talk , both recorded in New Orleans. Then the music stopped for a few years.
SM – Well, the music never really stopped. I did do an EP with Greg Leisz, Light Walker. But I had to take a hiatus from the road to take care of the life things: my mother’s death, health, infrastructure, taking care of business and, of course, money. Getting back to albums, yes Western Ballad was a very artful album with lots of layers, much different than anything I’d ever done. It’s a good album but I’ve moved on from there.
E – On your new one, Black Irish, you co-wrote 3 tunes, do a wide range of covers, but the most interesting thing here is that you were working with Rodney Crowell and recorded in Nashville. Talk about how the project evolved.
SM – Rodney and I met five years ago. He was looking for a female singer to sing some songs. He’s a very thoughtful and detail-oriented songwriter and he took his time trying to figure me out. We decided we were going to do something together but we were not in a hurry. We started recording this record between Christmas and New Years in 2015 over two days. We cut four songs the first day, had two more days when we cut four songs too. In the end, we pulled eight of them. We did two more sessions over the next couple of months, and found a label, Compass, who wanted us. We thought we had the album ready but Rodney wanted a couple more session. We recorded “Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” and Susannah Clark’s “Black Haired Boy,” about Townes van Zandt. Rodney later brought in Elizabeth Cook and Emmylou to sing on it.
[In the liner notes for the album, Rodney Crowell writes:“I first heard of Shannon McNally through John Leventhal, who described her vocal skills as having just the right amount of girlish smoke. At the time I was looking for just the right singer to make a cameo appearance on a song I was recording called “Famous Last Words of a Fool.” Trusting John’s appraisal—from his description I imagined something of a cross between Joan Jett and Lauren Bacall—I set about tracking the mystery singer down. What I eventually discovered in the small town of Holly Springs, Mississippi was this dark-eyed beauty who wrote grown-up songs, played a pretty mean Fender Stratocaster and, at times, sounded a lot Jesse Mae Hemphill. From our first meeting I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the right man for the job of shepherding the next Shannon McNally record into existence.]
E – You brought in Wendy Moten though, right? Who are some of the players on the album?
SM – Actually, Rodney brought Wendy in. What a great singer she is! We had Colin Linden, Jim Hoke, Audrey Freed, Jedd Hughes, Jerry Roe, Michael Rhodes, Micah Hulscher, and several others. Cody Dickinson was in there too.
E- You’ve always been fond of cover tunes. Talk about the difference in writing for an album versus selecting cover tunes and then finding your own way to interpret them.
SM – I really think a lot of people insist on their own songs to best collect on publishing. But I feel the artist has the responsibility to keep certain songs alive. For me, it makes me a better writer. Like all writers, I’d like other performers to cover my songs too. Even the best songwriters are covering tunes of others. Dylan, Rodney…heck, Willie Nelson does tons of them. He even did “Stardust.” If we don’t sing each others’ songs and inhabit other voices, essentially we compromise their immortality. Song like “Oh Susannah,” “‘Mannish Boy,” “Pancho and Lefty,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” should be remembered through time.
E -I do hear blues, soul, folk, country and just about everything else. You must listen to a very wide range of music. What are you listening to?
SM – For me it can be anything between Morphine to Tyrone Davis. But not a day goes by for me without listening to Neil Young. He’s very soothing and I listen to Harvest and Psychedelic Pill the most. My daughter, Maeve, is eight now and she listens to pop music. I find that I like Ed Sheeren almost as much as she does. Lately I am really into West Texas songwriters : Terry Allen, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and, of course, Townes [Van Zandt].
Going through this hiatus period and now that I’m performing again, I’m feeling the healing power of music. My head has always been with the music but now that I’m on the road my body needs to catch up. I find that both playing and listening can give you that energy…I don’t know if it’s spirit energy, cosmic energy…but it’s all energy, you know. And, I’m really feeling Texas right now.
E – When did you start touring again?
SM – It started at SXSW. I did eight shows with Charlie Sexton and Bukka Allen. I hadn’t played with Charlie in years but it really lit my fire. Our musical friendship is profound. I’m really feeling Texas now. I even got to sing with Willie Nelson when I was down there. Then I opened for Stephen Stills and The Ride for some shows. Now Brett Hughes and I are doing this kind of East Coast mini-tour. Brett recently made his first record in Nashville with Brad Jones and I got to sing on it. At some point, I hope to go back to Texas with Rodney, as the spirits of the Texas dance halls seem to be restless. look forward to that too.
E – What are your favorite tunes to perform live from the new album?
SM –You’ll hear songs from my catalog and some new songs I haven’t recorded yet. But from the new album, excepting the ones we can’t do without the band, are “You Made Me Feel for You,” “Banshee Moan,” both of which I wrote with Rodney, and “Black Haired Boy.” That one’s special. I visit with the spirits of that song every time I sing it. I feel like I’ve been invited in to feel some part of this friendship that Susannah Clark had with Townes. Townes had a foot in the next life the whole time he was here. Susannah caught that in the song. Just beautiful.
E – Some of the press materials describe this as a “career defining” record. Do you feel that way about it?
SM – Who knows what that means, right? A life well lived defines an artist’s career. I think this album defines where I’ve come from, where I am and where I can go. I’m re-energized.