Interview: Shannon McNally on why Waylon’s legacy needed a refresh

Why Waylon is funky and deserves to be appreciated by 30 year old girls and the pleasure of working with Terry Allen

New York born Shannon McNally has had a 20-year career in roots American music playing with a whole host of roots music legends including Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, The North Mississippi Allstars,  Bobby Charles, Dr. John, Levon Helm and Willie Nelson among others. As well as maintaining her own solo career, she is also a member of Terry Allen’s Panhandle Mystery Band. When she joined Joe Poletto’s Blue Rose Music she was asked what would she record if she was given free rein and she said an album of Waylon Jennings tunes. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Shannon McNally to discuss her new record ‘The Waylon Sessions’ and her career to date. Shannon explained why she felt that Waylon’s legacy need to be refreshed and how she is hoping that her record will bring Waylon’s music to the attention of 30 year old girls. She also explained that when listening to classic rock music on New York radio it was the sweet spot where the music of artists such as The Rolling Stones overlapped with roots American music such as the blues and country, and a J J Cale record she was given by her uncle, that inspired her to become a musician and started her on a musical journey that has taken her all over America..

Where are you now?

I’m in Nashville.

You were a New York girl originally though weren’t you?

Yes, I was born on Long Island.

 I was speaking to Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams a few weeks ago and I asked him how a New Yorker became such an authentic roots musician and songwriter. Apart from a love of the music, he said that Teresa was his musical conscience and ensured his southern music aspects were always authentic. Why did you decide to play roots music and where do you get your authenticity from?

Very similar reasons to those of Larry, the Rolling Stones play the blues and I had great radio when I was growing up and frequencies find frequencies, I think, and we had great classic rock radio from the ‘60s and ‘70s when I was growing up. We also had a lot of country radio and there was a point where they intersected and my parents had a great record collection when I was little and it was just the great songs and great sounds that once you find them, you can’t let go. You then go in pursuit of them and you then find them, you know. I have also lived all over the country over the years, as well.

It is one thing being a fan, but how did learn how to play this regional music?

I was always indifferent to music programs in school, and stuff, and I got a guitar when I was twelve and a J J Cale record my uncle gave me. I took guitar lessons and I think I am a natural singer and I have always been able to sing, and it was then just a matter of keeping doing it. I started joining bands when I was in college and then I went out to Los Angeles. I met Los Lobos right after college and they just rocked my face off and it was just one of those moments when, well OK, what I am doing is good but I need to take it to that level.

You could say that Los Lobos are one of the greatest American rock bands of all time even if they don’t necessarily get the full recognition they deserve.

They do in my world, I tell you. Those guys at the pinnacle of what they were doing were like the A Train coming through, fantastic just fantastic. Right up there with the Heartbreakers, just every song was so strong, so powerful, and then the guitar dynamic was so over the top great. Really truly thrilling music.

Over the years you have collaborated with a who’s who of roots-type musicians whose range has echoes of the 70’s roots rock. As a girl singer from New York, how did you get to work with people like the North Mississippi Allstars, Jim Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, Derek Trucks, Levon Helm and Willie Nelson among others?

I guess I have always been fearless, and when it comes to music and not knowing the business can be a blessing. You don’t think ahead and say you can’t do it this way or you can’t do it with this guy because. When I went out to Los Angeles and I first got signed and I started doing recordings I was really just self-managed and though I had a great record collection, I really didn’t know much about the music business beyond my record collection, and when they said who do you want on your record, I just opened up my favourite records and said this guy, Jim Keltner, if he is available I want him. They said you can’t have him and I said why not? They said, well he is a rock star who played on ‘Imagine’, and he played with George Harrison on ‘Bangladesh’ with  Leon Russell and Dylan, why would he play with you? I said has he got a phone number, let’s ask him? I called him and he came down and it was glorious on all levels, and after that, I wasn’t afraid to call anybody. Jim was so great, and I realised that great players will play with you if you are for real, have all the stuff and have the money to pay for it. Nobody is really a rock star at the end of the day, they grew up as normal people and most of them just want to make great music. Keltner to me was such an ah-ha, moment as I thought who is cooler than him, nobody [laughs].

Having Jim Keltner on your debut record is a good start to any career.

Naivety can be a wonderful thing.

You are twenty years into your career, and you have mixed your album releases between your own songs and covers of legendary roots musicians. Not many musicians would do a complete album of Bobbie Charles songs no matter how much of a legendary songwriter he is.  What draws you to covers that seem to be a statement?

Bobby Charles was a friend of mine and I knew him quite well. I lived in New Orleans for a long time and Bobby was a good friend of mine, I had cut ‘Tennessee Blues’ and I just think of the American songbook and I don’t know the difference between a cover and a cut, if I sing a Gershwin song is that a cover? Everybody was cutting Bob Dylan songs for over 30 years, left, right and centre and they were cuts, you know, and at some point, the economics of the music business took over and replaced the art and we now have to call it a cover, not a cut. As well as Bobby, Dr. John was also a really good friend of mine and a great mentor, and he and Bobby were great friends. Bobby Charles had a record called ‘Bobby Charles’ that he had done in Woodstock, and at the time, 2007, it was out of print and Bobby was just kind of sitting up at his house in Cajun Country, not really doing a lot, and he hadn’t been rediscovered and I loved that record that the did in Woodstock in 1972, I loved the sound of it and I just said to Mac we should recut that record because it is going to be lost to the ages. Mac thought it was a great idea, Bobby thought it was a great idea and those songs needed to be sung, so I sang them.

You have just released another covers album, for want of a better term, with ‘The Waylon Sessions’. What drew you to Waylon’s catalogue, he is country but with a good dose of the blues?

Waylon has always been part of my vernacular, you know, the same with Willie Nelson, they have always been present and accounted for in my record collection. I cut a couple of Waylon things earlier on in my career, I have always liked the classic country and the cosmic country, and I think really that is where americana really wants to go anyway. It’s not the roots of americana it is just the American Songbook. I’ve just moved to Nashville and I used to get a lot of flack for being too country, back when I was signed to Capitol Records, and this was before americana got its feet under it, and now it is like a favourite cousin everyone is familiar with and takes for granted. It was not long ago though, that there was no home for artists like me, rock radio didn’t want Emmylou Harris or Steve Earle, straight country didn’t really want us and neither did pop radio.

It was like songwriters stuff and I was getting flak for being too country and so I kept to my centre of roots rock, a bit more Heartbreakers and Doug Sahm sort of stuff. Through my move to Nashville, I realised just what an arsenal of colours and flavourings I have at my fingertips here with the players and everything. I did a little gig where they actually do straight country and I did ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ and a Terry Allen song ‘Amarillo Highway’ and I just had an ah-ha moment, just this relief, and I was like whoa, you can do great straight country. The band was really young and really good, and I am used to being twenty years younger than everybody and it gave me a moment’s pause when I was oh wow, these guys are really younger than me, now that is sexy [laughs]. It was just like if I can do anything I want then I can do Waylon and then it happened real fast, I mean really fast, I was in the studio in less than a month once the idea took hold.

The thing that attracts me to Waylon is his open-mindedness and it was just a gut reaction oh, I want to sing that stuff which I hadn’t done much before because I wanted to because I listen to it so much. That was just kind of an instant thing, I wasn’t thinking about it, you know, I just felt it but when I started to think about it I felt a little that Waylon had been boxed in because he died young, he was only in his early ‘60s, and he is such an important character in the panoply of country music greats that he gets railroaded into the genre and gets lost in the mix a bit. I think he has a much finer delicacy to his nature, he is really thoughtful and his ballads are so amazing, and I just wanted to break him out of the box that I saw him in, particularly with the way the world is right now. I didn’t want him to get lost as another close-minded, bearded white guy who is a racist because that just wasn’t Waylon. I was like we need to freshen this up a bit and put it back out there and I want 30-year-old girls to find it and enjoy it, as I did.

Waylon probably has one of the greatest catalogues of songs in roots/americana music. How did you go about selecting the songs and how easy was it?

Yeah, I have spent so much time with his music over the years and I pretty much sang the ones that were my favourites, the ones that jumped out, and I had a list of songs really fast that was already way too long. I then realised that some people who won’t have heard of Waylon will hear this and so I wanted to simultaneously breathe some new life into this thing for him, and at the same time transcend it because they are just songs at the end of the day, he didn’t write all of them. He is associated with most of them, a couple of them he is not even associated with [laughs], I just did them because they are part of a philosophy and part of his peer set, you know. They are Kris Kristofferson songs or Willie Nelson songs, who wrote it to me is important and then again it is not important simultaneously.

Jessi Colter is on the record, what was working with her like?

Aah, Jessi is just amazing, I was a little terrified. When I first heard the rough mixes I thought, well, this is pretty good and I like this [laughs] and this is pretty bold so I thought I will just send it to Jessi Colter and tell her I’ve done this, and I hope it is OK and I would love your blessing and I hope you will listen to it and I would be over the moon if you would sing on it. She listened to it and she was very encouraging.

That must have meant something to you.

For sure, she was the original Outlaw. On the ‘Outlaw’ record that Willie and Waylon did she was the only one with a gold record at the time, the other two were just scraping by, you know. She added legitimacy to what they were doing initially, and she is more of a writer than a performer but she is a badass, she is one of the originals and a great writer, a great singer and a great person, and she is also his wife [laughs]. I really wanted her to like it, or at least understand and appreciate it, and I knew it was a little risky because Waylon’s stuff has been pretty well mined and I’m sure when she first heard about it she was ooh not again, but she was really encouraging.

You have some of the crème de la crème of Nashville musicians on the record. What was it like working with such incredible musicians as Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan etc?

Yeah, they are the best of the bunch. When I decided I’m going to do this, what mattered the most to me was making sure it grooves like a Waylon record, because Waylon grooves differently, he is funky and he is West Texas, and he has much more of a boogie than most country music, it has a little disco in it even, and it is grooving more so than anyone else and Waylon stands out from all the other country greats. The thing that really mattered to me was getting the guitars right and just absolutely, you know, by the book, and I wanted all the details about the guitars, every sound to be right. I am making the record for two kinds of people, those who know what they are listening to and those that have never heard of him and have no idea of what they are listening to and I would like it to be the same audience.

As far as the rest of the band, I did call Kenny Vaughan first, just to feel him out, and I asked him what he thought about doing a Waylon project. He told me a story about seeing Waylon in 1973 in a supper club in Arizona, and he said he was really young at the time and it was kind of a date night, you know, so all the tables were filled with couples and when Waylon walked on stage, all the women turned like sunflowers to Waylon and all the men kind of got mad because they just realised they thought it was date night but the women were otherwise preoccupied with what was going on onstage [laughs]. It was very electric and the room sparked, and that is always the way I imagined Waylon but of course, I never saw him in 1973, and I never met him here. Hearing Kenny tell me this I thought that is what I want on this record, so I was real glad he agreed to do it.

Throw in Chris Scruggs, who plays with Marty Stuart, and is just one of the greatest living musicians who can play anything, Derek Mixon is from Chris Stapleton’s band who is just a slamming drummer from Louisiana, then we have Bukka Allen from Austin, Texas, on piano, I am with Bukka’s father Terry Allen in his Panhandle Mystery Band, who am I missing [laughs], ah, Fred Newell on pedal steel and second guitar and harmonica. Fred is a Nashville classic, and very few people playing pedal steel today play like Fred, and he played with Waylon originally, so I was very excited to have him there and have another layer, that authentic sound, in there the way the guitars tie together. The two guitar thing takes some brotherhood, or sisterhood, but that takes psychic mental telepathy on the part of the guitar players and how they lock-in. That was the band.

And I don’t think you could have recorded the record anywhere other than Nashville, could you?

No, I don’t think so. It had to be done in Nashville, I could have done something in Texas but it would have been different, you know. There is a little first cousin resentment that goes on between Nashville, Austin and Texas and it is funny, geography is funny and it is very interesting and it flavours everything and while I could have made a great spirited Waylon record there it would have been very different.

Let’s go to Texas.

I had to bring Texas in [laughs].

How did you get to work with Terry Allen and the great Panhandle Mystery Band?

I met Terry a number of years back through Charlie Sexton, and I joined the band pretty fast. I had been working with Charlie Sexton for years, maybe twenty years, so I knew Charlie really well, and they asked me to come sing a little harmony on the big show Terry plays at The Paramount Theatre in Austin every year. I said yes, of course, and he had other girls there on stage as well, and I don’t know they kept calling me and I kept coming [laughs].

What is Terry Allen like to work with and how has he influenced you particularly as he is a multi-media artist and not just a singer-songwriter?

There is nobody like him, really. If you look in the dictionary under prolific artist, that is Terry Allen, he is a songwriter but he writes the songs to go along with his artwork. He is a multi-media artist, he is a sculpture and painter, he draws and I have been to a number of his exhibits and they are equally gorgeous and his records go along with his paintings, or his sculptures at his huge installations and stuff. He made enough money as a visual artist that he didn’t have to tour, and that is a wonderful thing and is probably why he has been so prolific as he can stay home and be in his studio. Simultaneously, that is why many people haven’t heard of him because he doesn’t tour. He and Guy Clark were dear friends, and he is just one of the finest songwriters that you will ever hear and I would put him on a par, every syllable, with Bob Dylan, hands down. He is one of the very few people I could say that about and he has possibly written as many songs. If there is a thought he can have, Terry has communicated it, like Bob.

Another Texas singer-songwriter you have worked with is Rodney Crowell and you are also friends I believe.

I have connected with a lot of Texans and I just happen to have gone to Nashville [laughs], hey that is just the way it works. Yeah, I met Rodney about ten years ago when he called me to sing on something and that was really exciting, and then we stayed in touch and Rodney has really been a mentor to me. I can pick up the phone and ask him things, he had mentors and knows the value of mentors,  I mean, Guy Clark was his mentor and probably Terry as well to some degree, and Townes of course. Nobody really walks alone and I was really blessed to have him in my life.

Rodney Crowell has probably had the most commercially successful career out of that ‘70s class of Texas songwriters.

Yeah, he had a huge run for a long time, writing songs for other people and with his own records, and for a while it all lined up which is kind of a rarity. That is what is so great about Rodney, he is simultaneously a great writer and a great performance artist.

He has a new record coming out soon, are you on it?

No, I’m not [laughs].

What is it like working with Blue Rose Music and Joe Poletto?

It is a small company started by Joe Poletto, and he is really from the music business so he’s not sort of trapped by it. It is a funny thing, particularly in this day and age when nobody knows what it is, or how it is, it is changing so dramatically even in the span of my career, the music business is unrecognisable today from what it was when I started. Joe Poletto started Blue Rose Music to be a support system, and I think he may have started it because he had a lot of friends who were struggling musicians, and he wanted to help them and put some form around them.

That can be expensive.

Yes but I think he is in the position to really develop stuff, to maintain an office and they have been wonderful and they can do management, they can be the bank and do a whole lot of things. It’s a wonderful creative co-op kind of deal, you know.

Music streaming is a hot topic, particularly regarding artist royalties. How do you view streaming as an artist?

Well you know, what can I do? Right now it takes Acts of Congress and Parliament to stand up for songwriters. The monopoly laws that were in place in the ‘40s to sort of reign in ASCAP and BMI back in the day are now completely used against musicians. Music is like water, it is precious and so vital but people take it completely for granted, and these streaming companies, and I am just like everybody else and use them, with the demise of terrestrial places to play and ways to get paid for artists is bad enough, and now you are at the mercy of the streaming companies who don’t pay.

It is absurd and they have changed the dynamics so much that now artists can’t just focus and put out their best work, they have to be constantly just dripping product and I don’t think it is for the best. I do hope they find some kind of balance for real song people, and I have the same hope for climate change. They are big conversations, it is overwhelming, and I need Spotify like everyone else needs it, but do I have mixed emotions about all this, yes I do, but it is a really big concept and literally comes down to commerce.  Music needs to be recognised as vital and essential but until music is central everyone does what they want. I have had such wonderful patrons who help me survive, because they like what I do. It is an interesting time and it is a hard conversation and you just have to be a bit of a grump about it all and to be orthodox in what you do and just say, the universe willing, I will survive.

At AUK we like to share music with our readers. Who are your current top three artists/albums or tracks on your personal playlist?

I really like Charley Crockett and I think he is fantastic, my good friend Ramsay Midwood from Austin, Texas, puts out great records, I think Erin Rae is such a great singer and then there is Terry Allen. These artists are relevant at this moment and they are on a level that just makes you ache.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to AUK readers?

I love coming over there to the UK and I will be over as soon as I can and I do look forward to coming back. I hope people like the record and just enjoy it. You just want to make stuff that makes people feel really good.

Shannon McNally’s ‘The Waylon Sessions’ is out now on Compass Records

About Martin Johnson 407 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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