A band featuring Charlie Sexton and Tony Garnier from Bob Dylan's recent band, Ian McLagen from the Faces, and locals Tony Hall and Raymond Weber gets your attention. As impressive as those musicians' credentials are, Shannon McNally didn't feel intimidated fronting them when recording Geronimo (Back Porch), her new album.
"I didn't ever feel uncomfortable," she says by phone while driving south from San Francisco. "I felt extra-comfortable because they made the sounds that I'm familiar with." If anything, McNally is more impressed with Hall and Weber than the rest of the band. "I met Raymond when he was playing with Ervin Charles and Snooks (Eaglin), and that's as good as it gets."
McNally moved to New Orleans four years ago after an unhappy period in Los Angeles. She recorded 2002's Jukebox Sparrows for Capitol Records in Los Angeles, but the experience was difficult. "It's a first album and I had very ambitious ideas for it," she says hoarsely -- the by-product of three weeks on the road. McNally clashed with the label over the album's direction, going through two producers in the 13 months the CD took to complete.
"For a first record, being as much of a novice as I was following shadows of ideas, I was really on the right track." She still plays many of the songs from that album nightly, and they stretch out a bit in the hands of her live band, which includes 3Now4's David Easley on guitar and pedal steel, and Otra's Sam Price on bass. "I enjoy re-cutting that record each night live."
After enjoying a tour stop in New Orleans, McNally returned a few months later when she had a little more time. "I saw a Mardi Gras Indians' practice, went to a second line, saw Snooks at Rock 'n' Bowl, had a couple of meals at Elizabeth's and said, 'Why would I live anywhere else?' I was thirsty for all that stuff New Orleans had, so I had to move to the well."
After moving to New Orleans, McNally recorded 2004's Run for Cover, a subdued set of songs by Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson, among others. The album hints at the breadth of her musical roots, but on Geronimo, the soul influences are less prominent while the tracks evoke folk, blues and country the way songs by The Band did. She thinks of what she does as "North American ghost music."
"Every time I read a review or an article and someone tries to describe what I do, it goes something like, 'She's a mid-tempo rootsy blend of folk-rock, pop, blues and roots music, a soulful female singer-songwriter with a Southern accent,'" McNally says. "That's a lot of hyphens. Since it's not pure anything, it's got a lot of roots. It's music that has a lot of ancestors." Now that she's in the South, the Southern mix of country, folk and soul is pretty obvious, but she points to Northerners Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Westerners the Grateful Dead as influences that are just as important as the Allman Brothers and Dr. John. "I just wanted a bigger genre, one I fit in."
McNally had written many of the songs on Geronimo before she moved to town, but some of the key songs were penned here. The lead track, "The Worst Part of a Broken Heart," is one of them. On it, a woman goes from her wedding day to facing a new day on her own in three short verses, and her voice is that of someone who learned her lessons the hard way.
As much as that song is the sound of someone licking her wounds, the rollicking "Miracle Mile" sounds like someone in charge of her art. The song may have been written with a story in mind, but McNally sings as herself, bringing Dylan to mind in the process. The song's wordy boogie is certainly Dylanesque, but she's obviously conscious of the song as homage. In the last verse she slips in a quick impression of Bob before concluding the verse with the phrase, "How does it feel now?"
The title cut is the album's centerpiece, also written while in New Orleans. The song can be heard as a comment on gentrification, but for McNally, it's about more than that. "When I think of Geronimo, he emboldens me and gives me strength to face the ridiculous brutality and homogenization that's happening to the country," she says. "What's going on now with this administration is not very different from the 4th Cavalry going in and wiping out the Apaches and a beautiful way of life."
Susan Cowsill returns to Carrollton Station Saturday to continue her "Covered in Vinyl" series. She and her band spent the first Saturday nights of June and July playing Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, respectively. This time: Neil Young's Harvest.
For reviews of recent recordings by Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, Mark Knopfler, Frank Black and Fat Joe among others, see Opening Act 2.