Maybe you wondered what it would be like to hear a woman do a full album of Waylon Jennings songs after Shannon McNally teased us with “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” and “Freedom to Stay” on her 2009 Coldwater. Yet, even then, and by McNally’s own admission, that would have taken much courage. In fact, if one were to think of the most deeply masculine artists, they would likely land on either Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings. McNally has long been influenced by Jennings’ outlaw spirit but grew increasingly comfortable with the idea of an entire project of Jennings songs after settling in Nashville.
Two events led McNally to this place. She was part of a classic country tribute two years after moving to Nashville and sang a Terry Allen and the Crystal Gayle hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blues” only to leave the stage wishing she had sung a Waylon tune. She had also just signed with Blue Rose Music and when the founder Joe Poletto asked her what she could do if she could do anything, she responded without hesitation that her dream was to do an album of Waylon tunes. Originally the idea was to co-produce with Rob Crowell, the Canadian multi-instrumentalist who was in the band that night, but schedules did not work. McNally forged ahead, knowing she had to find musicians who could play with bravado, wit, skill, and mostly feel for classic country.
She got some help from AMA-winning guitarist Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart, Lucinda Williams) and together they recruited Derek Mixon (Chris Stapleton), pedal steel legend and longtime Jennings bandmate Fred Newell, Texas keyboard mainstay Bukka Allen (Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker), and bassist Chris Scruggs (Marty Stuart, Charlie Louvin). In the process, they gathered esteemed guests to harmonize with her including Jessi Colter, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, and Lukas Nelson. Across five days they recorded live in the studio, making decisions on the fly as McNally intensely rendered the songs straight.. At times, she doubted she could get away with it (“What’s this girl doing in the men’s room?”) but her sincerity and conviction became shared among all the participants. She has long found a feminine perspective in the songs and after listening you’ll likely interpret these songs differently than you originally did too.
The album opens with the prototypical Jennings cut “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” McNally singing confidently in her expressive voice that straddles the lines between blues and country as the band cranks it out animatedly led by Vaughan and Allen’s roadhouse piano. The mid-tempo “You Asked Me To” is punctuated by Newell’s dobro and Buddy Miller’s harmonies. “Out Among the Stars” has McNally trading verses and singing in unison with Jessi Colter on the choruses while Newell provides a classic bed of pedal steel. Lukas Nelson proves the perfect vocal partner on the flirtatious “You Show Me Yours & I’ll Show You Mine,” a standout.
Buddy Miller returns for a faithful take on “Black Rose,” originally penned by the late Billy Joe Shaver and McNally mentor and Texan Rodney Crowell joins for the rollicking “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” She follows with the Jennings staple “Ramblin’ Man,” buoyed by the guitar/pedal steel interplay of Vaughan and Newell. Both the tender and powerful aspects of McNally’s gorgeous alto reveal themselves on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” where she layers in her own vocal harmony (as she does on seven of the 13 here) and Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make Through the Night,” one the most sensuous renditions of this oft-covered chestnut. The penultimate closer is naturally “We Had It All.”
These impeccable performances call for an encore, answered by not one but two bonus tracks – the rambunctious “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” and Dolly Parton’s “Waltz Me to Heaven,” bringing the set to a touching, tear-inducing, and fitting finale. McNally realized her dream, sang her heart out surrounded by an elite group of musicians and guests, and delivered her career-best project, evident from the very first note she sings.
Bought this album. It is so pleasing to hear a woman singing these great songs – and not just any woman but Shannon McNally! The richness and emotional depth and nuance of Shannon’s voice is spine-tingling at times. The band she put together, centred on Kenny Vaughan, is killer. And the special guests are perfect choices.