In Irish folklore it’s said that the darker Celts have special powers; it must be true because Shannon McNally’s blues-Americana return, BLACK IRISH, will make you dance, break your heart, and save your soul.
Black Irish is McNally’s most personal project yet, which is saying a lot, given the Americana singer-songwriter’s deep catalog. But it speaks to the power of connection, and the power of music to create it and to reflect it. The kick off track “You Made Me Feel For You”, was written by her producer, Americana icon, Rodney Crowell, and serves as a metaphor for their collaboration - how his particular understanding of her unique gifts pulled out the career-defining album many have been waiting for since she came on the scene.
The album concept began in 2013, as she was going through what she calls “a miserable divorce,” raising her daughter Maeve, and nursing her terminally ill mother Maureen. Her parents had relocated to Holly Springs, Mississippi, and McNally moved in, caring for her mom until her death in 2015.
“I had no vim or vigor in me for a couple of years,” she admits. What saved her was her email relationship with Crowell, who’d been talking about producing her since 2012. He writes in the liner notes for Black Irish that their musical connection was immediate, describing McNally as “this dark- eyed beauty who wrote grown-up songs, played a pretty mean Fender Stratocaster and, at times, sounded a lot like Jesse Mae Hemphill. From our first meeting I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the right man for the job of shepherding the next Shannon McNally record into existence.”
It wasn’t easy. Too depressed to write, McNally recorded a favorite Emmylou Harris song on her laptop and worked up the nerve to email it to him. With lines like “There’s a river of darkness in my blood,” “Prayer in Open D” spoke to pain she couldn’t verbalize. “And he called me back and said, ‘That’s gorgeous, you were meant to do that song. Do more.” That was all she needed.
“We started this really wonderful thing of just lobbing song titles back and forth. And I just sat at that table and learned about a dozen tunes, my favorite covers, anything to spark a fire in this really dark turn.”
She co-wrote three of the album’s 12 songs – one with producer Crowell, who also penned two more for her; the rest include personal favorites by Stevie Wonder (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It”), Robbie Robertson (“It Makes No Difference”), and J.J. Cale (“Low Rider”). The result is an album that stands with the best of classic vocal interpreters like Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur.
“I just love great songs,” she says. “I’m inspired by Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Bill Withers, Mavis Staples. None of them hesitate to sing any song they feel like singing, even if they didn’t write it. I think great songs need to be spotlighted, they need to recycle back up into the consciousness.”
Today, McNally makes her home in the Mississippi hill country, “the most Southern place on earth,” she says. But her musical journey began in New York, where she was born on St. Patrick’s Day and raised in Hempstead, Long Island. Growing up in the age of ‘80s MTV-pop, she found an escape route. “When I was 12, my uncle gave me a J.J. Cale album. That saved me from the Debbie Gibson era.” So began her obsession with roots music. (She pays tribute to that early influence here with a swampy take on Cale’s “Low Rider.”)
McNally became a performing singer/songwriter/guitarist in college and eventually signed with Capitol Records. After some time in Los Angeles, she moved to New Orleans soaking up that city’s music, culminating in her 2013 tribute to singer/songwriter Bobby Charles, Small Town Talk, with an all-star band that included her producer Dr. John. (Earlier, she’d recorded a definitive version of Charles’ “Tennessee Blues” on 2005’s Geronimo.)
Between those albums she’d moved to North Mississippi as a Katrina refugee, and became part of legendary producer Jim Dickinson’s extended musical family. “Jim was the first person I met up there. He was a big mentor for me.” She sings about her early Mississippi days on “Roll Away the Stone,” a swaggering, horn-driven, Stones-inspired rocker, as well as “I Went to the Well,” a slinky blues co-written with Garry Burnside, the youngest of legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside’s 13 children.
The third McNally original, and an album standout, is “Banshee Moan,” about her experiences in the music industry, experiences common to working women everywhere. “I wrote that a ways back, previous to the
rebirth of the women's movement we've seen of late. I’m thrilled to see women truly engaged and pissed off again.” With its haunting melody and McNally’s rich, deep-blue vocals, “Banshee Moan” is no mere protest song, it’s a howl of the collective female spirit, equal parts softness and strength.
Black Irish was recorded in Nashville, but its distinctive sense of place lies 210 miles west, where Memphis meets Mississippi. The primary colors of American music are black and white, and Black Irish displays that hybrid in many shades, mixing country, blues, soul, rock, folk balladry and classic pop.
“Sense of place” is important to McNally. “I don’t do anything half-assed,” she says with a laugh. “I tend to move into a place. I’m a Pisces and that’s a water sign. And water takes on the shape of the vessel that carries it. When I lived in New Orleans I became fast friends with Bobby Charles and Dr. John and was really kind of consumed whole by that. And then, when I came up here (to Mississippi) the blues stuff was so organic and authentic and natural that I kind of got consumed by it.”
That’s her approach to Black Irish. Whether singing her own songs or others’, she “moves into” them, making them hers.
When it came time to record McNally enlisted her friend, Memphis soul- gospel powerhouse Wendy Moten on background vocals, while Crowell called in some of Music City’s finest, including guitarists Colin Linden and Audley Freed, bassists Michael Rhodes and David Santos, and drummer Jerry Roe.
For those familiar with Levon Helm’s ramshackle take on Muddy Waters’ “The Stuff You Got to Watch,” McNally’s smoothly swinging rockabilly/ jump blues will be a revelation. It’s her tribute to Muddy. “I love how classy he was, how sharp-dressed and handsome, with his pompadour and his gold and his perfect suit.”
To McNally, the late Susanna Clark’s song about Townes Van Zandt, “Black Haired Boy” (with Emmylou and Elizabeth Cook singing harmony) is a bookend to “Prayer in Open D,” the two most “singer-songwriter” tracks, both featuring Crowell’s fingerpicking.
“Isn’t That Love,” by Crowell and Beth Nielsen Chapman, expands the production with an organic pop feel. It’s McNally’s finest vocal showcase, her voice soaring into hitherto unheard upper registers. “I love Otis Redding and all those great soul singers who go right up there and get to that place,” she says. “That was the scariest, being that honest and vulnerable and that far out on a limb vocally. It’s liberating.”
Another challenge was The Band’s “It Makes No Difference,” originally sung to tragic perfection by the late Rick Danko. “I cried all over it in the studio, and I had to sing it a bunch of times, ‘cause I just couldn't keep it together,” she remembers. “And that’s where you’re supposed to be, the emotional intensity on the precipice of ‘I’m about to lose it. I’m about to break down, and it’s going to take everything I have not to.’”
She inhabits that song, her performance more resilient than Danko’s. “You don’t have to agree to the abyss,” McNally says. “You can be a quality singer and songwriter and not just drown yourself in the bottle. Everybody’s a little tortured if you do this; I’d just like to be there for the long haul.”
From that darkness comes light, as McNally and company close Black Irish with the joyous, roof-raising Delta gospel of The Staple Singers’ “Let’s Go Home.”
She won’t be staying long. With Black Irish, Shannon McNally moves into the next part of her journey.
all photos by Sebastian Smith