Shannon McNally at Newport’s Southgate
House Revival


Singer-songwriter Shannon McNally

By Dave Gil de Rubio

Songwriting has always had a firm tradition of storytelling and honoring the past. For singer-songwriter Shannon McNally, this is a trueism indicative of a recording career that dates back to her 2001 Capitol Records debut “Jukebox Sparrows.”

And while she was initially signed to her deal in 1997, she battled label executives who envisioned McNally being Alanis Morissette 2.0, while the Long Island native was hell-bent on pursuing a more organic sound. The fight was worth the effort, as she emerged with a collection of songs that had her working alongside the likes of keyboardist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Little Feat’s Bill Payne and in-demand pedal steel master Greg Leisz.

Fast forward 16 years and McNally has continued to fight the good fight, releasing last year’s “Black Irish,” the latest in a string of Americana-flavored outings that mix her rootsy originals with a number of eclectic covers. Adding to help burnish the warm, analog vibe that infuses these dozen songs is the steady production hand of storied Texas singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who not only had McNally appear on his 2014 release, “Tarpaper Sky,” but penned liner notes for her newest record.

“He’s one of the last true Mohicans in this way and is of that true songwriter mentality. There are a million songwriters out there and they look at it as a way to make a living. Then there are the writers who write so that they can get up in the morning. Rodney comes from that intellectual pocket of Texas songwriters—Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Terry Allen and then of course there’s Susanna Clark,” McNally said. “They really took it to high art and a very principled way of being in the world. That’s something you really need to be mentored in. You need somebody to say if maybe they don’t like the third verse of a song or to tell you that this is the part you should keep—this is the juice. When you’re talking about songwriting, there is a mystical element to it. That’s a big job. It kind of takes another artist or somebody with a very generous but crafted eye and that’s what Rodney has.”

For this go-round, McNally’s originals have plenty of grit, whether it’s the rollicking “Roll Away the Stone” and its mix of wailing sax and pounding piano reminiscent of a lost Mott the Hoople cut or “Banshee Moan,” a sedate acoustic number gilded by subtle flute arrangements that represents a howl of the collective female spirit.

Elsewhere, the Oxford, MS resident applies her smoky vocal phrasing to a number of covers that include a snappy reading of Stevie Wonder’s “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It,” puts a transcendental spin on Emmylou Harris’ “Prayer in Open D” and closes the album out with “Let’s Go Home,” a sanctified gem plucked from The Staple Singers canon. Most notable is her version of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” Originally given a heart-wrenching delivery by the late Rick Danko, McNally is far restrained, but no less effective. She credits Crowell with pushing her to record it herself, after she sent it to him as part of a set of demos the duo were going through together.

“When I sent it to him, [Rodney said], ‘Bingo. What you haven’t you recorded this?’” McNally explained. “He said I had to record it because that song is the one that anchors me in the land of top-tier singers and interpreters and I had kind of taken it for granted. When I’m singing songs like that—songs that I have an emotional attachment to, it’s a channeling thing. You’re channeling the person who put all that soul into it. To me, that song is all about the sound of Rick Danko’s voice and that performance. It’s almost an impossible song to sing and I don’t recommend it to most people because it’s really hard and you have to go so far out on the limb to do it. There is extreme
emotional vulnerability.”

Fans coming out to see the raven-haired, guitar-playing vocalist will either see her performing as part of a duo or a trio depending on the venue. Sideman Brett Hughes, who plays guitar, mandolin and sings is part of the live show and as McNally points out, “He’s a front man in his own right. We have a nice rapport and can kind of hand it back and forth to each other.” But what is a constant in her shows is a propensity for paying homage to what she calls “North American Ghost Music.”

“Music carries history and remembers. When I think of North American Ghost Music, I think of all the musical ancestors that I have and who, as an energy force, channel through me and who I’m grateful to know,” she said. “It’s not always easy and I think that’s what people notice me for. That’s what your heart responds to. Like food, when it’s really quality, it moves the emotions, and that’s very important.”

Shannon McNally will appear at Southgate House Revival, 111 E. 6th St., Newport, KY on March 25 at 7:00 p.m. For tickets, visit southgatehouse.com or shannonmcnally.com.

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Dave Gil de Rubio
Reach DCP freelance writer Dave Gil de Rubio at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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