Shannon McNally Tunes into an Outlaw Frequency for ‘The Waylon Sessions’
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
For Shannon McNally, it was one thing to think about making her next album a Waylon Jennings tribute, but another thing entirely to actually move forward with the plan. Few figures in the history of country music loom larger than that of the outlaw country legend who died in 2002. The Waylon Sessions, McNally’s ninth studio LP, out this Friday, required more than simply laying down a few tracks. Plenty of people protective of the Jennings legacy would be watching and listening. She had to do it right.
“Waylon Jennings has always been a presence in my musical life,” McNally explains over the phone from her home in Nashville. “He was on Sesame Street and the Dukes of Hazzard! He’s been ever-present. I was definitely a bit nervous to tell a bunch of people I was going to do this record. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I just trusted myself.”
McNally’s instincts served her well. They’ve been honed over the course of a two decade-long career that’s seen her go from buzzworthy major label artist to respected collaborator with marquee names including Son Volt, Terry Allen, and Rodney Crowell. The Waylon Sessions, the follow-up album to her 2017 release, Black Irish, is a satisfying offering, ready to introduce novices to much of what made Jennings and his famous outlaw pals so historically significant. But even for those long devoted to Jennings, these covers are impressive interpretations worth paying thoughtful attention to.
McNally enlisted the help of noted guitarist Kenny Vaughan of Marty Stuart’s band the Fabulous Superlatives, who assembled an all-star group consisting of fellow Fabulous Superlative Chris Scruggs, Fred Newell, Derek Mixon, and Bukka Allen. The rough tracks were recorded live in a studio over the course of five days. Some rather esteemed voices join McNally’s on the record, including Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, and Lukas Nelson. But one voice in particular carried the greatest weight of them all, in McNally’s view.
Jessi Colter joins McNally on the beautifully tragic “Out Among the Stars.” The outlaw country movement of the 1970s can’t be discussed in any serious way without Colter featuring prominently in the conversation. As one of four artists featured on the famed 1976 album Wanted! The Outlaws, the first country record to sell over one million copies, Colter occupies her own place in history. She also was married to Jennings for over 30 years before he died.
Receiving Colter’s approval was paramount to McNally. When the initial recordings were completed, McNally asked her friend and celebrated songwriter Gary Nicholson if he thought Colter would be interested in singing on the record. A longtime friend of Colter’s, Nicholson thought Colter would like what she heard and gave McNally her phone number.
“Having Jessi sing on the record was such a big deal to me,” McNally says. “I wanted this record to be official, so I wanted her to like it. Any project like this, especially when you think of how big of a space Waylon has in people’s hearts, you want to go in through the front door and have everyone’s blessing. If she had nixed the idea, I guess I would’ve said, ‘Okay, what now?’”
Thankfully, Colter immediately liked what she heard of McNally’s recordings and appreciated the singer’s perspective.
“She was very intelligent about her approach to the project,” Colter says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she had spent a few days celebrating her son Shooter Jennings’ birthday. “The sounds, the drums, the beat is what caught my ear because that’s all almost impossible to really capture. For Waylon that all came from his own feel, his rhythm playing. Many have tried. I was thrilled to hear ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ because after I listened, I thought, ‘Okay, this is really good.’”
A Shift in Perspective
McNally and her collaborators breathe new life into The Waylon Sessions songs, but there’s more than that to take note of. McNally’s smoky vocals give supercharged classics such as “Black Rose” and “I’ve Always Been Crazy” an intriguing shift in perspective.
Reconstructing these swaggering songs from a woman’s perspective wasn’t necessarily her primary goal, McNally says, but she acknowledges it’s an inescapable element to this undertaking.
“Initially, I didn’t think of this album as a way to make something masculine into something feminine,” she says. “It wasn’t a gender thing for me. As a woman, I get tired of talking about things from a woman’s perspective, rather than simply a human perspective, but that’s my reality. I am a woman in my 40s that is also drawn to Waylon’s legacy.”
Intriguingly, not every song on The Waylon Sessions is a Waylon Jennings song. At first, the tracklist may cause a few to scratch their heads, but including “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” a Kris Kristofferson-penned tune made famous by Sammi Smith in 1970, makes absolute and total sense.
As gifted and prolific in songwriting as Jennings and his contemporaries Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard were, they each took great joy in recording one another’s songs on a regular basis. McNally says the 1979 Willie Nelson record Sings Kristofferson, comprised only of Nelson performing Kristofferson songs, was an inspiration for her, calling it “pure mycelium magic, real mushroom magic.”
Although she appreciates the songs and the way in which Nelson so reverently rendered his friend’s work, it was another key element of the outlaws and the Highwaymen supergroup that appealed to McNally.
“Maybe this is a gender thing, but I love the camaraderie of the outlaws,” she says. “They were running buddies and drinking buddies and songwriting partners and they recorded each other’s songs. As a woman, I’ve always had to fight for that type of camaraderie in country music, and I’ve never really had it. The first time I played Gruene Hall years ago, the green room was in the men’s room! I love all the guys in my band, and I do think things are changing now, but it’s been a certain way for most of my career.”
McNally’s goal with The Waylon Sessions is to access something that’s difficult to define, a quality that goes deeper than whether a man or a woman is singing or which individual wrote a specific song. She sought a type of gut feeling from the songs she chose and from the way her band recorded them.
“I was looking for a certain kind of frequency,” she says. “From the inception of the idea to hitting record was less than four weeks, and during that time, everything was about being on the right frequency. People want to limit everything with labels for genres and genders, but for me everything is about frequency. Something either makes you buzz, or it doesn’t. Everything about this record makes me buzz.”