Mixing country and soul, Shannon McNally hopes to ‘figurehead’ a new pop genre

Shannon McNally performs at Mass MoCA on Saturday night

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 2, 2002) – In a world of Britney Spearses and Christina Aguileras, is it possible for an unknown, serious-minded, female pop-rock singer-songwriter to make an impact based on her music alone, and not on a marketing campaign that sells an image rather than an artist?

Shannon McNally thinks so, as do her fans and a few critics, and they all have good reason. It’s found in the tracks of her debut album, Jukebox Sparrows (Capitol), which came out earlier this year and which garnered a three-and-a-half star review in Rolling Stone magazine. An album full of catchy, melodic, country- and soul-influenced pop songs and ballads that variously recall Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow, it’s the sort of mixture that 15 or 20 years ago would have spelled stardom for the artist.

In spite of her artistic and critical success (see this critic’s list of the Top 10 CDs of 2002 elsewhere on this page), McNally has yet to be an overnight sensation or a household name. But that doesn’t mean audiences aren’t slowly catching on, or that McNally – who inaugurates the Alternative Cabaret in Club B-10, the revamped B-10 Theater at Mass MoCA in North Adams, on Saturday, December 7 at 8 (413-662-2111) -- isn’t still a believer.

“I opened a few shows for Willie Nelson this spring and there were three thousand people there each night ranging in age from three to seventy or eighty, and they loved it,” said McNally in a recent interview from her home in Freeport, N.Y.

“You still have the flash in the pan level of success, but that’s all manipulation and commerce,” said McNally, a native of Long Island. “People are starving for real music. Audiences are really hungry for it, they’re famished, dying for it, they love it and get excited when they see it or when they feel it.

“To get caught up in statistics and numbers that the media and corporations feed us misses the whole point. If music feels good, people want it. Look at Norah Jones. Why did her record go multiplatinum? It feels good. You’re not dead at thirty, you’re not dead at forty. You’re just starting families. You can make music for adults and sell it.

“There are 280 million people in this country. There are a lot of places to sell a million records and have successful careers. It depends on what you call successful. Do I think Christina Aguilera’s career is successful? No, I think it’s absolutely tragic. I wouldn’t trade places with her for anything.”

McNally was introduced to thousands of John Mellencamp fans recently when she held down the opening slot on his summer tour. That might seem like a tough job – to entertain hordes of fans who had paid to see Mellencamp and who had never heard of McNally – but the singer said it was fine.

“John hand-picks his opening acts, and his fans know that,” she said. “They’ve come to trust him on that level. And I worked hard to set the show up and to be a good opening act. His audience and I understood each other and clicked. I was very lucky. Nothing’s more uphill than playing an acoustic guitar by yourself to a Friday night drinking crowd in an Irish bar, so I was prepared for anything.”

The reference to the Irish bar is to Molly Malone’s, a bar in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles where just a few years ago McNally regularly held forth. After attending Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., McNally moved to Los Angeles and began a crash-course in learning how records were made while performing in various solo and band gigs.

Eventually she won the interest of Perry Watts-Russell, a talent scout at Capitol Records who signed the English band Radiohead. But Jukebox Sparrows was four years in the making. “It was a long process waiting for that record to come out,” said McNally. “I worked on it a year solid and waited for a year for it to come out, so it’s had a three- or four-year life at this point.”

The music on Jukebox Sparrows is a timeless blend of country and soul influences channeled into a classic pop-rock feel. It’s a record that is as fresh as the latest Sheryl Crow effort, but one that could pretty much have come out 25 or 30 years ago as is.

“I was interested in mixing the worlds,” said McNally of the country and soul influences. “I was interested in that big, rolling Southern California, Oklahoma/Texas shuffle thing, but also very intrigued with a lot of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties soul music. I used the Ry Cooder record, ‘Bop Til You Drop,’ as a model, Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Nick of Time’ and Rickie Lee Jones’s first record as templates in a way, in the mix of funky country.

“I’m sort of still working on honing that, bringing both elements to be one unique thing. Will I ever do it better than Leon Russell? I don’t know. I doubt it. But I’m looking to really figurehead my own genre. I think I was doing that subconciously, but I’ve become more consciously aware of that lately. When you think back to the Otis Redding band, black artists have been able to do that better than white artists, to take country music and apply soul to it, like Ray Charles did. I’d like to kind of do that.”

McNally hopes to begin recording the follow-up to Jukebox Sparrows soon. In the meantime, she recently self-released an acoustic duo album, “Ran On Pure Lightning,” with singer-songwriter Neal Casal, who plays guitar in McNally’s touring band. Available only at shows and through McNally’s website (, “Ran On Pure Lightning” features songs by both McNally and Casal. The album was produced by Casal and features such legendary instrumentalists as keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson) and bassist Bob Glaub (Stevie Nicks, Warren Zevon).

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 6, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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