Shannon McNally – No Bones About It
This is a story about new beginnings, or at least about keepin’ on keepin’ on. Or maybe it’s about, as some really pissed-off wit once said, finding out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice. No matter how you spin it, Shannon McNally, whose second mass-distributed album, Geronimo, is finally out after a long delay, knows the story well.
In a nutshell, her career thus far:
McNally was signed to Capitol in 1997, but her debut album, Jukebox Sparrows, didn’t get finished until 1999, and didn’t come out until early 2002 (preceded by the stalking-horse EP Bolder Than Paradise, with which it shared three tracks). By the time she got off tour (opening for John Mellencamp) in August, the label informed her it was done pushing the album.
In June 2003, after six months of negotiations, she cut Geronimo on a bargain-bin budget, the tradeoff she made with Capitol so she could have Charlie Sexton as producer. The label rejected the finished product and tried again to dictate a new producer; after she refused, it took another six months of negotiations to get out of her contract. Thus, Geronimo, released June 28 on Back Porch, is coming out two years after it was recorded. (In the interim, McNally issued the acoustic EP Ran On Pure Lightning with her buddy Neal Casal, which they sell on their websites, and a set of mostly blues revivals called Run For Cover on her own Tail Feather label.)
McNally, in case you couldn’t tell, is one of those headstrong artists for whom independent labels were perhaps created in the modern record business. At 32, she belongs to that diminishing breed whose instincts are equally roots and pop; for this, she’s most often compared to Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow, though she actually sounds little like either.
As a writer, she’s ambitious but unpretentious, and adept with both personal confession and character-driven narrative. As a singer, her well-seasoned voice and phrasing embrace both earthiness and sophistication, smokiness and clarity. As a live performer, she works solo acoustic, in duos, or with hard-rocking bands. On Geronimo, her songs are more focused and her vocals more resourceful than before.
“The hard work’s over,” she laughs. “Making the album wasn’t hard, but extracting it and then turning around and finding people who were gonna take good care of it, that was important to me. Now I just wanna go out and play it, just kinda enjoy it.”
She’s sipping coffee at the kitchen table in Charlie Sexton’s South Austin home on an overcast April morning. Around the corner in the living room is Sexton’s “studio” — recording equipment occupying whatever areas don’t already have chairs and couches. Shannon had come over from her current hometown of New Orleans to help out on vocals for Sexton’s upcoming record, and she wound up also going off on a writing jag, as she often does when she’s inspired by someone else’s music.
Born and raised in Long Island — her private-eye father favored jazz and R&B, her hairdresser mom folk and contemporary pop — McNally grew up learning violin and then guitar while singing in school choirs. Once she went off to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country, she began writing songs (“It just came out of nowhere; I just sat down and wrote a song one day”) and performing at open mikes and with blues and rock bands. Her own tastes had crystallized around Ry Cooder (especially Into The Purple Valley), Los Lobos, Morphine, a little Radiohead, and most prominently the Cowboy Junkies.
After a Junkies show, she slipped her demo tape to Margo Timmins — more, she insists, as a goodwill offering in appreciation of their music than as an attempt to get her own foot in the door. “I thought I was about a million years away from actually doing anything of merit,” she recalls. Timmins apparently tossed the tape onto the tour bus and never did listen to it, but her manager eventually did. He called McNally from Los Angeles and offered to get her a publishing deal; since she’d just picked up her degree in social anthropology and had nothing better to do, she went.
She couch-surfed for year while writing and performing solo and then with a band. By the time she signed with Capitol, the troubled label was about to go on the sales block. Nobody there had much idea of what to do with her, and she seemed to have too much of an idea for the label’s taste. Her album sessions quickly turned into your basic music-biz stop-and-go, hurry-up-and-wait situation, dragging on and on.
McNally managed to round up the rootsy, eclectic sidemen she wanted — from legendary studio drummer Jim Keltner to steel guitar great Greg Leisz, who’d been virtually the first friend she made in L.A. — while the suits were trying to talk her into using Alanis Morrisette’s band. “They always wanted to change something and I was very very resistant,” she acknowledges. “I never threw them a bone. Then I went to see Gillian Welch at the Troubadour when her second album came out, and I thought, ‘This girl doesn’t throw anyone a bone.’ That really bolstered me.”
For all the strife, she was satisfied with the finished product, from the opening “Down And Dirty”, which was inspired by J.J. Cale’s “Cajun Moon” (and would sound great in the hands of one of Malaco’s soul-blues stalwarts), to the neo-hepcat closer “Jukebox Sparrows”, a contemporary spoken-word piece that nods toward Tom Waits. McNally toured with Robert Randolph and then Mellencamp, got considerable AAA airplay (especially the track “Now That I Know”), did late-night TV, and sold about 35,000 — not much by major-label standards, but a decent foundation on which to build.
By then, Capitol was on its third president in the five years since McNally had signed. She’d been through as many managers, and stiff-upper-lipped her way through periods where she had none and fought her fights alone. As far as she could see, she was no closer to rapport than ever.
She went into the second album with the idea she would “take the money and run,” she says. “If I could get them to actually give me the money to make a record, I would make whatever fucking record I wanted. I was dead set on getting Charlie to produce, and I was gonna go sequester myself with him. They said if you’re gonna do it your way we’re only gonna give you half the budget, so when you screw it up we can still send you to fix it.”
Actually, she amends herself, the choice they gave her was a $200,000 budget to cut three songs with a producer of the label’s choice, or half that to do a whole album with Sexton. Still without a manager and bargaining for herself, she happily chose the latter. She and Sexton retired to a studio in the Louisiana bayous for two weeks with a band of keyboardist Ian MacLagan, bassists Tony Garnier (who Charlie’d worked with in Bob Dylan’s band) and Tony Hall (Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews), drummer Raymond Weber (Harry Connick, Fats Domino) and Leisz. In the end, the album wound up on Back Porch — distributed, oh irony of ironies, by Capitol’s parent company, EMI.
What jumps out first about it is that Sexton helped her make a guitar album. Her first disc never even suggested how relentlessly McNally can rock with the right band. “I love guitar, I love lead guitar, I love pedal steel,” she admits. “I wanted real guitars this time, no bullshit background muzak. I said we’re gonna have real guitars and I’m gonna like the tone on them and it’s gonna have balls.”
The screaming slides and barbed-wire solos on “Miracle Mile” and “The Hard Way” are reinforced by a more sure sense of rhythm, something she’s picked up since moving to New Orleans just before Jukebox Sparrows came out. She’d taken to the Big Easy during an off day on an earlier tour, when she met her future husband Wallace Lester (a transplant from Boulder, where he’d drummed for the jam-band Zuba). “I was too tired to fall in love that day, but we stayed in touch,” she grins.
Once McNally moved, Lester took her to Mardi Gras Indian music rehearsals and second-line processions. “I was downright ill from dealing with everything — physically, mentally, spiritually, I was just out of juice,” she says. “I was emaciated, bug-eyed all the time. New Orleans was real medicine in the Indian sense, good medicine. The way people dealt with the awful shit that the music business personified to me, through song and through dance and through music and rhythm, I was so thirsty for it I couldn’t leave the well.”
She didn’t even play in town her first two years there; instead, she just took in the local scene, and grew increasingly self-conscious about how un-rhythmic her own music was. When she began working again, she used New Orleans drummers, and though she hasn’t (to her credit) simply tacked the second-line beat to the bottom of her songs, the change in flavor is apparent on tracks such as the spirit-driven “Pale Moon”.
But you’ll also notice how much more her voice swoops, soars, sobs, snarls, soothes and scats, on songs such as “The Worst Part Of A Broken Heart”, “Sweet Forgiveness”, and “Beautiful And Strange”. A technician who doesn’t sacrifice feeling, she breaks meter to deliver certain lyrics, and throbs up into fetching semi-yodels.
The title track is a tour de force on every level. McNally has concerned herself with the modern world’s exploitation of the earth ever since she devoured the writings of environmentalist John Muir when she was a teenager, and those beliefs led her into studies of the American Indian. “Geronimo” germinated in her journals over years — a good rhyme in February, a whole couplet in November, with thousands of words worth of jottings on various subjects in between. She eventually completed it with Leisz when he was in New Orleans working on a Ryan Adams album.
The basic idea was catalyzed when she read Geronimo’s autobiography, which included a stunning photo of him driving a Model T Ford in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show — the defiant and victorious warrior reduced to a showbiz caricature. The song laments how so-called progress (a euphemism for greed in her view) sweeps aside or homogenizes everything in its wake; by extension, it’s a meditation on one of her favorite themes, that of maintaining individuality and originality in a mall culture.
But the song has a double-edge, for as she later sings, still in the Apache chief’s voice, “You may have won every battle but you’ve lost the war.” When she does, the song turns into the ever-popular rallying cry — “Ger-on-i-mo!” — a call to keep resisting the inevitable. “Because you don’t squash that spirit entirely,” she says. Of the many well-meaning songs by Anglos exulting the Native American, this is one of the few that doesn’t ultimately make a mockery out of singer and subject alike.
Shannon McNally has paid a price for her own strong will, but she’s not flinching just yet.