“The Waylon Sessions,” an album released back in August, celebrates the music of Waylon Jennings, pioneer of the outlaw country movement, perennial Nashville iconoclast, a gruff vocalist with a string of chartbusting hits, part of the legendary Highwaymen with his pals Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, and a man with a well-noted image as the epitome of macho cowboy hellraiser. It’s no surprise his music still resonates with new generations of rock and country fans.
What’s unexpected is that this lively new album remembering Jennings, who died in 2002, was done by singer/songwriter Shannon McNally.
"A female doing a whole album of Waylon songs? What in blazes is going on here?" would be the likely reaction of a couple of generations of crusty Jennings fans.
But the thing is that McNally makes it work, and then some, reimagining 11 of his classic tunes, infusing them with her own brand of defiance and fire, and convincing you Jennings’ music is truly timeless and its themes are relevant today.
McNally will be making her only New England tour stop on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at City Winery in Boston, performing the album in its entirety, and then a selection of her own past work.
“I did it mostly because it is fun to sing his songs,” said McNally from her Nashville-area home, “and singing them, I can see a version of me.”
We noted that, when last we’d talked, in 2017, McNally had pointed to the Adam Sandler movie "The Cobbler" to explain her approach to doing covers. She felt that when you cover someone’s song, it’s like walking in the shoes of that person.
Staying true to Waylon Jennings
“I wanted to do a modern representation of his music, and not treat it like something locked away in a museum,” McNally explained. “I also wanted to sing these songs stylistically true to Waylon’s music. I’ve been down here in Nashville during the lockdowns, hearing just a lot of bar and country music. I wanted to hear the kinds of sounds and grooves that Waylon did, and the freedom to see the world as he did. Despite all the obstacles he had to fight through, he was a tall, good-looking man who lived outside the rules. He was bold and original, and I’ve always imagined that to be kind of great.”
“The whole ‘outlaw country’ thing he’s known for is ultimately just about being an artist,” McNally said. “For Waylon, it was about being himself. As Bob Dylan says, 'to live outside the law, you must be honest.’ All of those things, bucking the Nashville establishment, going his own way, were very exciting to me. Now, times have changed. As a white, female singer-songwriter, I didn’t suffer the severe consequences that people like Waylon did in his time. But I really appreciate Waylon for speaking the truth, and being true to himself.”
Much like Jennings, McNally gets tossed into several categories. There are folk and country elements to her songwriting, but she’s mainly a rock ‘n’ roller, melding all sorts of roots music into her own vision.
She studied anthropology at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she began playing gigs for spending money. After her 2002 debut, her rockin’ vibe garnered her opening slots with stars including Stevie Nicks, Son Volt and John Mellencamp.
After her daughter Maeve was born in 2008, McNally took some time off from music, and returned in 2013 with the striking album “Small Town Talk,” featuring Dr. John. That album was also a musical tribute, to Louisiana songsmith Bobby Charles, whose compositions included “See You later, Alligator,” a big hit for Bill Haley and the Comets, and “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” a huge hit for Fats Domino.
Beyond 'Black Irish'
McNally’s most recent work before this was 2017’s excellent “Black Irish,” a collection of her own songs with several covers produced by her friend Rodney Crowell. That album included tunes ranging from Stevie Wonder to J.J. Cale, to The Band to Emmylou Harris, indicative of the wide range of McNally’s musical influences.
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Waylon Jennings may be best remembered as a founding father of outlaw country, but his roots were always in rock. He was playing bass with his pal Buddy Holly as a member of the Crickets as a teenager.
The famous story is that, since the Big Bopper was feeling lousy, Jennings gave up his seat on the small plane the headliners were using on a Midwestern winter tour, and took the bus with the other musicians. The plane carrying Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens went down in a storm, with no survivors, the episode noted in Don McLean’s "American Pie" as "the day the music died."
Years later, it was Jennings’ roadhouse-forged blend of rock and country that helped make him a star.
“It is interesting that Waylon was deep into both country and rock ‘n’ roll,” said McNally. “He played with Buddy Holly and Elvis. It was a very important part of his life that affected his music. I relate to that, of course, since I also fly a lot of flags musically.”
On the new album, McNally brings the kinetic force that characterized Jennings, but adds a stunningly updated female perspective too. “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” is a lively rocker, with a video that has the singer stealing a car and taking off "Thelma and Louise" style. While a big hit for Jennings, that tune was written by Crowell, so he pops up as a guest, singing the final verse with her. “I’ve Always Been Crazy” has a similar tone of rockin’ rebellion.
“Black Rose,” another song associated with Jennings but actually penned by Billy Joe Shaver, is a country-rocker (with a video filmed in a small-town jail) where the singer laments the inability to avoid trouble, and the chorus is practically a mission statement for outlaw country (“The devil made me do it the first time. The second time I done it on my own”). McNally carries it off with satanic glee, and guest guitarist Buddy Miller adds extra spice to the performance.
Singing Kris Kristofferson tunes
Jennings also recorded an affecting version of Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and while McNally’s take contains all of the song’s weary vulnerability, her female perspective adds layers of meaning, and her vocal range and control is just spine-tingling. Shifting a Jennings song to a female view also works wonders on the tender love song “You Asked Me To.”
But no doubt the most notable guest on the album is Jessi Colter, the country singer who is Jennings’ widow. After she had finished recording, McNally sent Colter the music.
“I called Jessi after doing the recording and told her I hoped she approved,” McNally recalled. “She listened to the album, and called me back, and told me she thought Waylon’d be tickled to hear it. I decided to be really bold, and asked her if she’d like to sing on it with me. We both agreed it had to be on the song 'Out Among the Stars,' and so Jessi joins me on that track.”
“This record made itself, we got it done so fast,” said McNally. “It was just meant to be, and I’m very proud of it. Coming out of the pandemic and getting out to play again feels so good. We did what everyone else did during the lockdowns, a lot of streaming shows, making this record, enjoying the time with my daughter, my cats and dog, and my garden. I did some writing, but I also had to develop other parts of myself, and became very prolific on a lot of other fronts.”
If you go
Who: Shannon McNally
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13
Where: City Winery, 80 Beverly St., Boston, near City Hall Plaza
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Source : https://www.patriotledger.com/story/entertainment/2021/10/05/americana-musician-shannon-mcnally-puts-new-spin-waylon-jennings/5997712001/2067