Shannon McNally performs at Pearl Street Warehouse on March 12, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Shannon McNally has been performing for 25 years, during which she’s shared stages with jam band artists like Robert Randolph and Derek Trucks, heartland rockers like John Mellencamp, and Americana troubadours like Steve Earle. She’s won acclaim both for her own writing and for her exceptional ability as an interpreter of song.
Shannon’s latest album, the self-produced The Waylon Sessions, delves into the recordings of outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings, and she appeared at DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse recently to tour it. She said it was easy to choose the songs, as she just “picked her favorites.” The album was cut in four days, and featured guitar work from Kenny Vaughan; after she opened the set with “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” Shannon related a tale from Kenny about seeing Waylon at a club in Arizona in 1973.
As she pointed out, Waylon only wrote “about a third” of his material, choosing to record the best songs at hand. Often, those came from Billy Joe Shaver (“You Ask Me To,” “Rose of a Different Name”), who she had the opportunity to meet. At the time, she was living in New Orleans, and Kinky Friedman (who is quite the character, but that is a whole discussion for another time) had announced he was running for governor of Texas. A gentleman by the name of Reverend Goat Carson (I can only assume this was not his given name) asked her to drive him to the campaign kick-off event. Though reluctant, she gave in, and she encountered Billy Joe there. Billy Joe, as she described him, was a hulking, physically affectionate man, in “a pre-Me Too way.” She described how he sweetly enveloped her in a bearhug and asked, “Would you like a doughnut?”
An observation: The rules aren’t the same for everyone. I could never get away with Billy Joe got away with. Billy Joe was an extremely sensitive observer of people, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He was able to get very close to the line because he could sense where the line was, and he knew how to stay on the right side of it. From everything I’ve ever heard about Billy Joe, while he might’ve gone to close that line, he would never have crossed it. Most of us can’t do this, because we’re not attuned enough to other people to see just where the line is and stay on the right side of it. When she was making the album, Shannon got in touch with Waylon’s widow, Jessi Colter, to ask her for “permission and forgiveness.” She also asked her to sing on the album, and Jessi provided vocals on “Out Among The Stars.”
Stream The Waylon Sessions by Shannon McNally on Spotify:
Rodney Crowell figures prominently in Shannon’s story; he produced her previous album, Black Irish. He introduced to her a number of songs by Susannah Clark, who was married to Guy; the two were also were also best friends with Townes Van Zandt. This whole web of relationships is chronicled in Tamara Saviano’s excellent documentary, Without Getting Killed or Caught. Shannon recorded “Black-Haired Boy,” which is about Townes, as well as “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.” Bee Spears called the latter the best song ever written.
Rodney also helped Shannon finished another original track on the record, “The Banshee Moan.” She finished her encore with a song of his that Waylon recorded, “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” which they performed as a duet on her album. She also mentioned that she had just done the Outlaw Country Cruise, during which she had performed in a tribute to Rodney.
In addition to her work as a solo artist, Shannon also performs as a vocalist in Terry Allen’s Panhandle Mystery Band. Terry is a country-rock singer-songwriter and visual artist, originally from Lubbock, Texas, who now resides in Taos, New Mexico. A few months ago, they made their first appearance on Austin City Limits. In her set at the Pearl Street Warehouse on Saturday evening, she covered one of the songs from his latest album, Just Like Moby Dick, “All These Blues Go Walking By.” After covering Terry, she covered another great Texas artist, Steve Earle, with “You’re The Best Lover That I Ever Had.”
A couple of new songs made their way into the set. One, written with longtime Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton, was “Off The Killing Floor,” while the other was simply titled “Trouble.”
At the end of her set, Shannon related a story from the time she opened for blues legend Taj Mahal, whose size she likened to Shaquille O’Neal. He told her that she needed to write a song that was sung at weddings. Heeding his advice, she composed “Bohemian Wedding Prayer.”
Throughout the set, Brent Hughes provided accompaniment on electric guitar and backing vocals, with the occasional interjection of banter. This was her first stop in the DMV since 2019, and she did not disappoint, with some truly fine singing and great stories.
Here are some photos of Shannon McNally performing at Pearl Street Warehouse on March 12, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.