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Shannon McNally Western Ballad (2011)

Shannon McNally – Western Ballad (2011)
Born: Long Island, New York, March 17, 1973
Genre: Americana / Indie / Roots Music
Location: Oxford, Mississippi, United States
Record Label: Sacred Sumac Music / 101 DISTRIBUTION
Original Release Date: March 22, 2011
Shannon McNally sixth studio album has one thing in common with the other five — it defies easy categorization. Released in 2009, Coldwater was rooted in the blues and greasy country-rock; it was made out of love for from-the-soil music that she shared with her collaborator, the legendary Jim Dickinson. (He passed away a few months after it was completed.) Western Ballad reflects interior, languid textures; ambient spaciousness; flowing guitars; sparse, purposeful percussion; and haunting melodies. This time out, McNally worked with songwriter/engineer Mark Bingham. The pair (along with a slew of guests) recorded at New Orleans’ Piety Street Recording with engineer Wesley Fontenot. Piety Street is famous for its warmth and open spaces. As such, the studio is an actrual character in this music; a natural collaborator, and reflects that identity in each of the album’s 11 songs. McNally and Bingham co-wrote nine original songs, ranging from the jangling folk-rock of “Memory of a Ghost” to the shimmering “When I Am Called,” the Cajun waltz “Tristesse Oubliée,” the slow, skittering rock & roll shuffle of “Thunderhead,” and the title track — whose words come from a poem by Allen Ginsberg that was arranged by Bingham years ago but not recorded until he found the right singer. The dreamy Southern soul in “Toast” sounds utterly natural in McNally’s unique contralto and slippery phrasing. The old-school honky tonk in the traditional “Little Stream of Whiskey” (with an off-kilter, seemingly loose arrangement by Bingham and a stellar guitar break by McNally) sets up the balladic closer. While “In My Own Second Line” doesn’t stick to a fixed rhythmic structure, it does offer its own limpid sense of flow-and-go, with a sung lyric that is as moving as it is true. While the catchall for McNally’s impossible-to-pigeonhole music is “Americana,” that hardly does it justice–as the diversity on Western Ballad attests. Only Gram Parsons’ term “Cosmic American Music” begins to touch her mercurial, changeling roots aesthetic, though she calls it “North American Ghost Music.” McNally is a Zen-like, post-Beat song poet; her only peers are other writer/visionaries like Tom Russell, Patti Smith, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, all of whom understand traditional forms implicitly, and who bend them to serve their own ends, which are, in the end, those of the song. Western Ballad is McNally’s masterpiece — at least thus far. -All Music-
01. Memory Of A Ghost 3:50
02. High 3:42
03. When I Am Called 4:13
04. Western Ballad 5:46
05. True Possession 3:34
06. Tristesse Oubliee 3:29
07. Thunderhead 5:09
08. Rock and Roll Angels 5:29
09. Toast 5:09
10. Little Stream Of Whiskey 3:43
11. In My Own Second Line 5:21
Website: http://shannonmcnally.com/
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/shannonmcnally
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShannonMcNallyMusic?sk=app_2405167945
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/shannonmcnallymusic
Guitarbench interview: http://www.guitarbench.com/2009/09/02/shannon-mcnally-artist-interview/
Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Western-Ballad-Shannon-Mcnally/dp/B004L5D7DM/ref=ntt_mus_ep_dpi_1
One of the hallmarks of Shannon McNally’s music is a plasticity. It’s not the only one, but that trait has meant that her collaborators leave an obvious mark on her music, even as it remains clearly hers. On Jukebox Sparrows, her Capitol Records debut, that meant the label and producer could put a layer of gloss on her version of American roots music just as easily as Dylan sidemen Tony Garnier and Charlie Sexton could bring out the Dylanesque romp in the songs on Geronimo. Last year’s Coldwater was cut with the late Jim Dickinson, and the Mississippi hill country blues the two loved gave the songs a raw edge, while Western Ballad, made at Piety Street Recording with Mark Bingham (who co-wrote the songs), treats McNally’s music as art.
Each collaborator sees something different in McNally. The producers of Jukebox Sparrows clearly saw someone marketable, while Geronimo highlighted her place in the folk rock tradition. Coldwater embraced her bluesy side, but Western Ballad shows how all those pieces and more fit together in a unified artist who’s more than just a genre, face or voice.
When a friend heard the album low in the background while we were driving, he asked, “Patti Smith?” The mis-hearing was appropriate. Both are mannered vocalists whose songs are at once carriers of ideas and gestures themselves—prayers, chants and/or trances that are influenced but not limited by the words. And both are reaching toward something larger than themselves and spiritual, finding the key in the commonplace. Smith wed post-Beat poetry to music heavily influenced by the soul, garage and pop hits of the ‘60s; McNally plays with Native American themes and the tropes of roots music to produce what she calls “North American Ghost Music.” In the process, she makes a stronger claim to the idea evoked by the phrase “Cosmic American Music” than anything Gram Parsons recorded. “When I Am Called,” for example, sounds like it could be an Appalachian folk spiritual (“I will go / when I am called”), but the theme of acceptance is evoked without mention of God or Heaven; instead, McNally finds her place in a nature that exists independent of place and time (“bluebirds are never in / the wrong century”).
The album’s title comes from an Allen Ginsberg poem that Bingham arranged in the 1980s and kept in his pocket until he found the right singer. The poem is a riff on the classic trope of a person saying goodbye from beyond the grave. Ginsberg suggests a form of afterlife (the singer had an angel waiting), but the song’s not about waiting for that beautiful reunion to come; it’s about experiencing life’s great experiences. “I never suffered a love so fair,” McNally sings. Throughout the album, the mundane and natural are celebrated, and experiencing them connects her to something bigger than herself, a note first sounded on the album when she luxuriates in the sensations on “High.”
Bingham’s an integral part of Western Ballad. I won’t presume to be able to sort out what each brought to the songwriting partnership, but it’s telling that engineer Wesley Fontenot is listed among the musicians in the liner notes because unlike the more obviously rootsy albums that seemed to obscure the studio’s existence in “rawness,” the album is clearly and obviously produced. Accordions, banjos and lap steels are part of the instrumentation, but they’re only part of a psychedelic network of sound that evokes a dream-like state, and it’s a sound that came about by embracing the studio as part of the creative process and exploring the avenues it makes possible. But this isn’t a detour so much as another context for McNally. As with all her other albums, the sonic context counts. Here the signifiers of classic folk and country frame the songs, but they don’t limit them.
Too often, rawness is fetishized as somehow more “true” or “honest” without recognizing that it too is a concept and a product of the studio just as much as a more involved, involving sound is. On Western Ballad, McNally and Bingham have made an album that reaches more boldly and illuminates her thoughts more clearly than ever, in the process calling into questions a lot of assumptions about immediacy and honesty. (Offbeat.com: http://www.offbeat.com/2011/02/01/shannon-mcnally-western-ballad-sacred-sumac-records/)
- Bolder Than Paradise [EP] (2000)
- Jukebox Sparrows (2002)
- Ran On Pure Lightning (2003)
- Run For Cover (2004)
- Geronimo (2005)
- North American Ghost Music (Live) (2006)
- Coldwater (2009)
- Western Ballad (2011)

JJ Grey with Shannon McNally
March 16, 2011 at Paradise Rock Club in Boston‚ MA
photography by Richard Gastwirt

JJ Grey with Shannon McNally
March 16, 2011 at Paradise Rock Club in Boston‚ MA
photography by Richard Gastwirt

Mississippi-based musician Shannon McNally delighted the audience at The Belmont Hotel with able backing from Cary Hudson.

| Shannon McNally @ Bayou Boogaloo |

Dave Easley - lead guitar

Dave Easley - guitar / Wallace Lester - drums / Sam Price - bass

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