Recorded with an all-star band and featuring special guests like Jessi Colter, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, and Lukas Nelson, Shannon McNally’s extraordinary new collection, ‘The Waylon Sessions,’ isn’t so much a tribute to Waylon Jennings as it is a recontextualization, a nuanced, feminine rendering of a catalog long considered a bastion of hetero-masculinity. That’s not to say McNally has a softer, gentler take on the songs of Jennings and his outlaw compatriots here; in fact, just the opposite. Over and over again, she manages to locate a smoldering intensity, a searing hurt buried deep within the music’s deceptively simple poetry, and she hones in on it with a surgical precision. McNally doesn’t swap pronouns or couch her delivery with a wink; she simply plays it straight, singing her truth as a divorced single mother in her 40’s in all its beauty, pain, and power. The result is that rare covers record that furthers our understanding of the originals, an album of classics that challenges our perceptions and assumptions about just what made them classics in the first place.
“When I listen to Waylon, I hear an adult,” says McNally. “He sounds like a grownup, and for a long time, I think being a grownup has been confused with being a man. There’s a feminine perspective hidden somewhere inside each of these songs, though. My job was to find a way to tap into that and draw it out.”
As daunting an undertaking as that sounds, it was really nothing new for McNally, who’s been mining the rich veins of American roots music for more than two decades now. Born and raised on Long Island, McNally has, at various points, called New Orleans, Nashville, and Holly Springs, Mississippi, home, but it was in Los Angeles that she first came to national attention in the early 2000’s with her Capitol Records debut, ‘Jukebox Sparrows.’ Recorded with a Murderer’s Row of studio legends including Greg Leisz, Benmont Tench, and Jim Keltner, the collection garnered high profile spotlights everywhere from NPR to Rolling Stone, earned McNally slots on Letterman, Leno, and Conan, and led to dates with Stevie Nicks, Robert Randolph, and John Mellencamp among others. She followed it up in 2005 with ‘Geronimo,’ a critically acclaimed sophomore effort that prompted the New York Times to call her “irresistible” and the Washington Post to hail her as “a fine lyricist who often calls to mind Lucinda Williams.” A restless creative spirit with a magnetic personality, McNally would go on to release a wide range of similarly lauded albums, EPs, and collaborations over the next 15 years, performing onstage and in the studio with the likes of Willie Nelson, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, Charlie Sexton, Derek Trucks, Terry Allen, and many more along the way.