Shannon McNally is experiencing wanderlust. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her roots are firmly planted in sweet, soulful music more than the place she currently calls home.
The 36-year-old singer-songwriter who was born and raised on Long Island (you’d never know it by her husky, Southern drawl) is taking her acoustic guitar and glorious voice back on the road again – and into the recording studio with her band – after some periods of inactivity.
“It’s always nice to be working,” McNally related in a recent e-mail. “I love the road.”
A brief run through Colorado recently included a July 18 solo acoustic show at The Walnut Room in Denver. Hidden in a back room behind a restaurant, the intimate setting (capacity: 200) is where lovers of folky, earthier songs with an emphasis on the authentic written word take their music seriously.
Of course, it’s also nice to get out of the house again during the summer when you live in northern Mississippi, where the swarming mosquitoes, sweltering heat, and stifling humidity can make life miserable even for a deep-down Deep Southerner.
In mentioning what a delightful time she had in Salida, a small Colorado town southwest of Denver on the way to Telluride, McNally said, “It’s like yoga studios and coffee shops for days! You have to understand, in this little, tiny town I live in, we have neither of them. There’s nothing.”
Except the bugs, which she said are so enormous, “They name them people names, like Fred and Mary.”
Yet, despite living in the Bible Belt (“I think there’s more churches than there are houses,” she offered), life in a small southern town is good for McNally and her family, who she jokingly refers to as “heathens from New Orleans that washed up there from Hurricane Katrina.”
It’s a long way from her days singing “Bury My Heart On The Jersey Shore,” one of the stellar tracks off her 2002 debut, Jukebox Sparrows. McNally was on a major label (Capitol), becoming a darling of critics (Rolling Stone gave the album 3 1/2 stars) and AAA radio. She played and recorded with Charlie Sexton, sang with Dr. John, John Hiatt, and Son Volt and toured with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Ryan Adams.
Three full-length albums and three EPs later, McNally’s career is in rebuild mode. This Mississippi Queen seems perfectly content with leaving the fast life behind, basing her resurgence on solid storytelling and a smoky voice that sounds cooler than Loretta Lynn but safer than Shelby Lynne.
McNally’s livelihood was temporarily put on hold when she gave birth to a girl named Maeve – “We just call her Maevis for short” – last August.
“When we were thinking about naming the baby, we were thinking about all the good, powerful names out of the Bible,” McNally revealed to the Denver crowd. “And thought we probably shouldn’t name her Jezebel. It’s gonna make kindergarten rough.
“It’s wonderful, it’s great,” she said of bringing up baby in Holly Springs with her husband/drummer Wallace Lester, who once lived in Boulder, Colorado, and played in a stoner band called Zuba. “Somebody asked me earlier if I had written any songs about her yet. My answer was, ‘No, not since she was born.’ But I think I wrote songs about her before she got here and now I’m pretty sure they are about her and I just didn’t know it.”
McNally proceeded to belt out “Sinful Daughter,” a song she co-wrote with her friend Dave Alvin that appeared on the unreleased 2007 album Windswept Moon.
The song about a “guilty woman” that ends in a rapturous near-yodel received one of the loudest ovations of the night, causing McNally to quickly interject, “I hope that’s not too much of a song for a 10-month-old baby. Kind of a lot to take on right away.”
Looking more western than country in jeans, a black shirt and green scarf, McNally seemed comfortable on stage, except when she had to double-check her setlist. “I use my iPhone,” she admitted, at one point scrambling to make it work. “So I’m going to look at it. I’m not texting anybody right now, I promise. 'The show is going so bad right now.' Nope, it’s going really well.”
Playing solo also meant tuning solo, and the crowd was treated to a rare close-up glimpse of an unplugged performer with Southern hospitality, chatting like she was their next-door neighbor. “I’m going to sing you a song by a Texas songwriter,” she said unassumingly, before taking on Townes Van Zandt’s “Don’t You Take It Too Bad.”
The night also gave her a chance to promote a couple of projects that might take her away from the normality of rural life. In September, McNally will open a handful of dates for Alvin, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and former Blasters frontman who is on tour publicizing his new album with an all-female band, Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women (Yep Roc Records).
His new musical venture came about after the 2008 death of accordionist Chris Gaffney, a member of Alvin’s previous group, The Guilty Men. Built around Alvin’s acoustic guitar, the record gets a boost from Austin, Texas-based guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, along with Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Christy McWilson, Sarah Brown, Amy Farris and Lisa Pankratz. They will perform at the L2 Arts and Culture Center in Denver on Aug. 13.
Meanwhile, McNally will take part in a benefit concert in Memphis on Aug. 8 for 67-year-old Jim Dickinson, a well-respected musician and producer who has been hospitalized over the past couple of months after undergoing several medical procedures, including triple bypass surgery. Dickinson produced Windswept Moon, which featured his sons Luther and Cody of the North Mississippi Allstars and a guest appearance by Ray LaMontagne for a duet of “Small Town Talk.”
The failure to get that record off the ground hasn’t discouraged McNally, whose last actual batch of original material to reach the public was 2005’s Geronimo, which she often relied on (“Worst Part of a Broken Heart,” “Pale Moon,” “Weathervane,” “Leave Your Bags By The Door”) throughout her hourlong performance.
She is looking forward to the September release of Coldwater, the first album with her band Hot Sauce. Together for about three years, the group includes her husband (who’s also involved in a live radio show in nearby Oxford called Thacker Mtn Radio), along with Eric Deaton on guitar and Jake Fussell on bass.
Among the Coldwater selections she played in Denver were a cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” (written by Steve Young) and “Take Me Back.” Discussing the latter cut's title, she offered, “I don’t say that a lot. Normally, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll see you later. Goodbye. Thank you for listening.’ ”
Her show ended much the same way, a polite McNally quietly leaving the stage and hanging around to talk long after most of the audience had departed.
The next permanent stop for McNally is anybody’s guess. One thing’s for certain. This Restless Heart, she says, will be “touring on and off forever.”
See Shannon McNally perform “Bohemian Wedding Prayer” with Eric Deaton on guitar and Jake Fussell on bass at Music in the Hall in Oxford, Mississippi, on May 22, 2009:
• Go to flickr.com for concert photos of Shannon McNally and other performers.