“I hate the term ‘female singer-songwriter’, or ‘woman musician’. It makes me recoil,” says singer-songwriter, accomplished guitarist and sought-after collaborator Shannon McNally. I also hate hearing about ‘girls’ night out, or ‘ladies night’ – let’s get one thing straight; if you’re a lady, and you’re at a bar alone, you shouldn’t have to buy your own drinks.”
Matter-of-fact, down-to-earth and a local favorite in Aspen, Colorado, McNally is a blend of East, West and South, from Long Island and Pennsylvania to L.A., New Orleans and, most recently, the rural, blue-laden outskirts of the Mississippi Delta in Holly Springs, Mississippi. “I was 22 or so when I went out to L.A.,” she says. “I was an anthropology major at university in Pennsylvania, and I’d written like 3 songs. I headed to L.A. with my 3 songs, for a publishing deal, and got signed immediately. It was during the whole Lilith Fair thing, a good time to be a ‘woman musician’; before Lilith Fair, you’d hear maybe one female artist on the radio, followed by maybe an hour of men but after Lilith Fair, you’d hear the Indigo Girls, Jewel, Alanis Morrissette, all in a row ”.
Hence, the rise of the dreaded labeling and clustering of female musicians and the songs they write and sing. “I was very young at the time, and had to suffer through the learning curve…the recording process was so long and drawn out, it took four or five years to get that first album (Jukebox Sparrows) recorded. It’s retarded, that it took so long!” she continues, with a laugh.
She worked with Jim Keltner on drums, well-known for beats with Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and recorded in the same studio where Willie Nelson’s ‘Teatro’ was made. “It was an amazing place to create and I learned so much about how to make a record, “she recalls.
The album is one of her best, featuring the autobiographical “Bury My Heart Down By the Jersey Shore” and the provocative “Down and Dirty”, yet the first song she ever wrote, the beautiful and tender “Pale Moon”, didn’t make that first album cut. “I wrote it for a crush, a guy I knew in college, who headed to Ecuador,” she shares. “I was listening to a lot of Emmylou Harris at the time; I love her music, particularly her later work.”
“Pale Moon” showed up about 15 years later, on 2005’s “Geronimo”, her main commercial success and produced by icon and future collaborator Charlie Sexton.
While in L.A., she worked with Neal Casal, prolific and talented singer-songwriter and lead guitarist with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals; the two released an EP, while Casal played in McNally’s band over the years. Soon, she got wind of Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, ominously released on September 11, 2001, and became a huge fan of both Dylan’s later work and his lead guitarist, Charlie Sexton. “I had this overwhelming feeling that I had to find Charlie and we had to play together; I put it out there in the universe,” she recollects, with a chuckle. Sexton not only produced Geronimo, but the two artists put out Southside Sessions EP, a haunting, organic album and a striking blend of their individual and collaborative talents.
McNally’s influences are many, and diverse, from Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Dylan and Sexton, to Derek Trucks, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Allman Brothers. “I grew up in the ‘70s, classic rock, classic country, when guitar ruled the world. I just really identified with the male guitar players. Especially Santana. I first wanted to learn guitar because it was more of writing tool; really, it’s a way for women to make themselves heard…we’re still taught to be pretty quiet and that there’ll be a backlash if we’re vocal – writing and then playing the guitar is a way to get the emotions out, to unblock vocally,” she elaborates.
Although McNally shuns the label “female singer-songwriter”, she fervently believes men and women learn to play the guitar differently. “Guitar is a lot like math, and I think that’s why more women don’t play it. We need to look at guitar as a series of shapes: a scale, a chord, it’s like throwing a ball…girls aren’t taught how to do that, for the most part. We try to push it, no one tells us to step back; it’s all about how you hold the guitar.”
“When I first started, I would just sit there and look at it, because I didn’t really know how to play it. Then I walked around for like 6 months with it, getting used to the feel,” she continues. “I’d walk around the house, do everything with the guitar around my neck. I even cooked with it,” she says; “It’s an extension of your body. like a hairdryer, or a big spoon you stir a pot with.”
After years in Southern California, it was time for a change of scenery. She met her husband in a record store; he was heading back to New Orleans, and she was ready to get out of L.A. for awhile. She relocated to New Orleans and got deep into the music scene and the culture. The couple was there for about five years, when Katrina hit.
“We evacuated to Holly Springs, Mississippi – and never went back,” says McNally. “When you evacuate in a crisis like that, you just go. It was completely against my will, but Holly Springs is an interesting place; it’s an old antebellum town and the houses are grandiose, dirt cheap, dusty…there’s lots of interesting thing for an anthropology major who likes poking around,” she says, mischievously.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Mississippi, McNally met the late Jim Dickinson, father to Cody and Luther of the North Mississippi All Stars and Hill Country Revue, a musical legend, timeless songwriter, endless collaborator and the main man of the Mississippi music scene. “He was wonderful, passionate man, a product of the culture and ideology, and practical and passionate about music and as an artist; he had a flock here. People sought him for advice and for his contributions. He played on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, as well as with Big Star. His regional work was very important, but his scope and influence went far beyond.”
While honing her own craft, McNally’s been handling both the creative and administrative side, as well as a new job title, mother to 2 ½ year-old daughter Maeve. “Because I’m a woman, there’s a million things to get done and I’m constantly multi-tasking; it’s hard to clean the plate entirely, so I tend to write in pockets of time,” she says.
“I like to free-write, almost nonsense, then go back and find the pearls and string them together. Sometimes it’s just one word and it’s like a magnet; the shavings just come around it. Writing a song is like getting a pedicure…I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I have some time this afternoon, I’ll do it.’ And then I think, well, why don’t I do this more often?
Musically speaking, there’s one thing for which she’s most grateful. “I have no love of trends,” declares McNally. “There’s always been something in me that makes me choose a certain direction. I have a pretty strong internal navigation system. I’m so intensely allergic to anything that doesn’t sound right to me. Sometimes it can feel kind of burdensome and makes it harder to play the game in the music business…maybe I could have been bigger, but I’m past the point of selling out. But really, there’s no one in the music industry to sell out to these days,” she says, with a laugh.
“I’ve just never had an option not to follow my instinct. With music, I know what I like and what I don’t; and I’m grateful for that.”
She pauses, then confides, in a melodramatic whisper: “And I’ve always been allergic to the Low Spark of those High-Heeled Boys.”
Shannon McNally is a frequent visitor to both BellyUp Aspen and Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. She tours regularly in Colorado and her latest album, Western Ballad, is now available on iTunes.
Tune into Saturday nights to Sonic Byways on aspenpublicradio.org, 8 p.m. Mountain Time, for music from Shannon McNally and singer-songwriters across the country.
Photos Courtesy of Shannonmcnally.com.