Shannon McNally could be like one of those characters in Treme, the critically acclaimed HBO series about New Orleans musicians surviving in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Actually, Shannon McNally should be one of those characters. She already knows the part by heart.
In a 2005 cover story for OffBeat, New Orleans’ highly authoritative music magazine, writer John Swenson paid the ultimate compliment to the petite roots singer-songwriter after seeing her perform at a promotional in-store at the Louisiana Music Factory. “McNally proved herself as a big-stage rock ‘n’ roll figure capable of the interactive intelligence only the greats possess,” he wrote.
It didn’t happen overnight. Five years after she signed a major record deal with Capitol, her full-length album debut, Jukebox Sparrows, was released in 2002. By then, McNally had made the Crescent City her permanent home. Geronimo followed in 2005, but not after disagreements led to her departure from the label.
Yet a bond with the N’Awlins In Crowd was made. Living and working in a wildly carefree and creative place filled with soul, spirit, eccentricity and true grit, McNally embodied it all.
Then Katrina hit. OffBeat, with McNally on the cover (right), was still on newsstands around town. It disappeared for a few months, McNally a little longer.
By 2009, McNally had few others to depend on but herself. That’s one of the reasons why she decided to give Kickstarter a try, embracing the true spirit of “independent artist” while no longer “at the mercy of the peanut gallery.”
Kickstarter advertises itself as “the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world,” and it worked this past year for McNally. A campaign began Aug. 27, 2010, with the goal to raise $10,000 by Oct. 6 for her new album. Pledge as little as $15 for a pre-released copy of the CD (55 backers), $50 or more for a CD and VIP passes to a show of your choice (17 backers) or as much $1,500 for a house party gig in the U.S. (three backers). The goal not only was reached, it was easily surpassed, with 204 backers pledging $23,171.
Obviously, she was pleased with the results, and the hauntingly beautiful Western Ballad was officially released March 22. McNally played lead guitar throughout and co-wrote all but two of the songs with Mark Bingham, her New Orleans-based producer and longtime collaborator who also was the voice of the “ghost” on the album-opening “Memory of a Ghost.”
McNally provided progress reports — and new music — during the process and found instant gratification through fan feedback.
“It just went incredibly well,” she was saying recently from the road about the project, leading to a decision to establish her own participation program, the Further West Fund, on her website. “And it’s been amazing. It’s helped me put this record out and turn the page on staying alive out here. ... I was very, very amazed at people’s enthusiasm and their generosity and sort of their support and their eagerness to participate.”
So it was quite exciting — and yet somewhat startling — to see her appearing on the eve of Independence Day 2011 at the Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, Colorado. Surprising because customers didn’t have to pay a dime to watch McNally and her new three-piece band perform for nearly three hours.
They had just begun a summer tour in support of Western Ballad, adding to a rich, moving and ample collection of what she likes to call North American Ghost Music. A series of shows free to the public (“It’s the new face of the music industry,” she acknowledges), along with three house concerts on this leg, have helped to pay the bills along the way, along with more traditional dates such as headlining at highly respected Swallow Hill in Denver or opening for Hot Tuna at Mishawaka Amphitheatre. The house concerts are especially gratifying, McNally says, because, “They’re generally really nice houses and people, most of the time, are really entertaining.”
Other dates can be challenging, she admits upfront on her website. In introducing her Further West Fund, McNally writes, “I am a self funded independent artist. Even in this new era of DIY technology and capabilities it costs 10’s of thousands of dollars to make and release a serious album. AND then there’s advertising, placement and marketing costs…..No amount of new technology or music business evolution has done anything to reduce the spiraling cost of touring, which remains a whole other beast with a voracious appetite. One day one the road for me runs $500 minimum. ... You can do the math, that’s a lot of beans. Of course the idea is that I get paid for the gigs and some go better than others. Some are complete disasters.”
Not that the setting in Boulder — a glorified restaurant bar filled mostly with people who preferred to talk rather than listen — turned into a disaster. McNally actually seemed at ease playing over the din, ignoring the chatter and maintaining her composure even when she was asked (told?) to keep performing until 1 a.m., well after the band figured they were sufficiently done with a substantial second set.
Commended during an impromptu phone interview more than a week later for the way she handled a scene that sometimes ranged from casually indifferent to completely obnoxious, McNally graciously accepts the compliment. “Oh, well, you know, you just have to pretty much roll with whatever the night brings,” she says. “I’ve played just about every setting under the sun. It kinda keeps it interesting ’cause every show is gonna be a little bit different just ’cause every audience is different; they want different things; and unruly isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just ... they want to party, you know? That’s OK.”
So it’s business as usual for McNally.
Just like so many musicians and regular folk who were affected by the storm, McNally learned to adapt after Katrina. Born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., she eventually settled down with her Mississippi-born husband Wallace Lester (who doubles as her drummer and tour manager) and gave birth to a girl named Maeve almost three years ago. (At right, McNally and Lester perform in Boulder.)
A simpler life in a northern Mississippi town (Holly Springs) agreed with her. Except in the summertime. “You know how it is for Southeasters,” Lester says. “Rich in culture, but it’s a little hard to tour down there.”
No wonder McNally calls Lester her touring genius. They scheduled their Further West Tour for this time of year, with two weeks in Colorado (“There’s no tornadoes, no hurricanes and there’s no bugs,” she’s pleased to say), then more stops in northern California before heading back through northern Arizona and New Mexico.
Their journey in a 15-passenger van usually includes Maeve and her nanny. “We incorporate her childhood into our day,” McNally says of her daughter. “Which is a really nice role for grown-ups as well. When there’s a bunch of crusty old musicians and there’s no kid in the car, it never occurs to you to stop at a park or to stop at a pretty spot and get out and run around and take a hike. You get into this mind-set where you wake up at the hotel, you sleep until 10 or 11, you get up, you go have your coffee, you get in the van, you drive wherever you’re going, you find the hotel, you check in, you do sound check, you knock around until the show, you do the show, you go to the bar, you go back to the hotel. That’s how you can really get it in a rut. But having a little kid around, that’s just not possible.”
Thankfully, she still finds time to write, record and play music, blessed with a voice — and a poet’s dark but multicolored pen – that will break and steal your heart at the very same time. Running an operation primarily by yourself, unlike at a label where “other people supposedly do all those things,” has been ultimately worthwhile, especially when it comes down to the music. “I’m a pretty good judge of what sounds good and so just let me do it,” McNally figures.
Despite the disruptions off stage in Boulder, McNally, Lester and recent Austin additions Alan Durham on electric guitar and Will Sexton (Charlie’s younger brother) on bass put on a dazzling show. After riffing on new names for the band (the previous lineup was called Hot Sauce), they have settled for the moment on Smoke Signals, Lester says.
At least five of the 11 songs from Western Ballad, including “Memory of a Ghost, “Thunderhead,” “High” and “When I Am Called,” were performed during the multiple sets, along with the title track. “Western Ballad” was originally a poem written by the late Allen Ginsberg, who also had strong ties to Boulder, a college town with liberal leanings and eclectic tastes. Seemingly perfect for such a well-rounded artist as McNally, whose flair is more western than country.
A generous sampling of covers from Dylan ("She Belongs to Me") to Waylon ("Lonesome, On’ry and Mean"), Neil Young/Nicolette Larson (“Lotta Love”) to Bobby Charles, the revered Cajun singer-songwriter who died last year, got the crowded house rocking instead of squawking. Especially on “Crossroads,” the Robert Johnson number reborn by Cream’s Clapton in the Sixties. McNally, who also plays a pretty mean Fender herself, went toe to toe with Durham in a spirited give-and-take jam session.
She also touched on other high points of her career: From Jukebox Sparrows — a blazing “Down and Dirty” and “Now That I Know”; Geronimo — the title cut, “The Worst Part of a Broken Heart,” “Pale Moon” and “Sweet Forgiveness” ... twice (hell, even the most prolific songwriters run out of material after awhile).
“I don’t mind playing for three hours at all,” McNally later insists, recalling another gig days after the Boulder show at the Victoria Tavern in Salida, Colorado, where they were supposed to play from 9 to 1. “It’s just that first week with a new band, I wasn’t quite for prepared for it. ... Those are the working gigs. I certainly have done hundreds and hundreds of them in my 15 years on the road.” (laughs)
And while New Orleans doesn’t pop up on her tour schedule until Aug. 25, McNally always feels like a proud adopted child of the city. She still plays at least half a dozen times a year there, and is a regular at the heralded Jazz Fest.
Which bring us back to that role in David Simon’s Treme. This woman of independent means would be a natural. She already has the accent, the connections, the sultry looks and the Deep South hospitality, sounding as sweet as a drop of Tupelo honey, as warm and intoxicating as a sip of Southern comfort.
McNally praises the show for its chronological accuracy, and admits she was on the road — where else? — for most of the two years following Katrina. But now that Treme is moving toward Season 3 ...
“Well, I love the series,” McNally says. “It’s weird not being in it in some ways. (laughs) It’s really a little strange to me because it’s so close to home. ... You see all your friends in there. And they really, really, really paid very close attention to detail.”
Not that it’s 100 percent spot-on. “The Steve Earle character ... I didn’t know anybody quite like that,” McNally says of a a streetwise street musician with Yoda-like mentoring capabilities who also happens to be as masterful a songwriter as the Hardcore Troubadour himself.
Now that the character is gone, though, (RIP, Harley Watt), there must be an opening in the cast for an amazing North American Ghost Writer who will bring heart and soul to the role, along with a healthy helping of authenticity.