One of the hallmarks of Shannon McNally’s music is a plasticity. It’s not the only one, but that trait has meant that her collaborators leave an obvious mark on her music, even as it remains clearly hers. On Jukebox Sparrows, her Capitol Records debut, that meant the label and producer could put a layer of gloss on her version of American roots music just as easily as Dylan sidemen Tony Garnier and Charlie Sexton could bring out the Dylanesque romp in the songs on Geronimo. Last year’s Coldwater was cut with the late Jim Dickinson, and the Mississippi hill country blues the two loved gave the songs a raw edge, while Western Ballad, made at Piety Street Recording with Mark Bingham (who co-wrote the songs), treats McNally’s music as art.
Each collaborator sees something different in McNally. The producers of Jukebox Sparrows clearly saw someone marketable, while Geronimo highlighted her place in the folk rock tradition. Coldwater embraced her bluesy side, but Western Ballad shows how all those pieces and more fit together in a unified artist who’s more than just a genre, face or voice.
When a friend heard the album low in the background while we were driving, he asked, “Patti Smith?” The mis-hearing was appropriate. Both are mannered vocalists whose songs are at once carriers of ideas and gestures themselves—prayers, chants and/or trances that are influenced but not limited by the words. And both are reaching toward something larger than themselves and spiritual, finding the key in the commonplace. Smith wed post-Beat poetry to music heavily influenced by the soul, garage and pop hits of the ‘60s; McNally plays with Native American themes and the tropes of roots music to produce what she calls “North American Ghost Music.” In the process, she makes a stronger claim to the idea evoked by the phrase “Cosmic American Music” than anything Gram Parsons recorded. “When I Am Called,” for example, sounds like it could be an Appalachian folk spiritual (“I will go / when I am called”), but the theme of acceptance is evoked without mention of God or Heaven; instead, McNally finds her place in a nature that exists independent of place and time (“bluebirds are never in / the wrong century”).
The album’s title comes from an Allen Ginsberg poem that Bingham arranged in the 1980s and kept in his pocket until he found the right singer. The poem is a riff on the classic trope of a person saying goodbye from beyond the grave. Ginsberg suggests a form of afterlife (the singer had an angel waiting), but the song’s not about waiting for that beautiful reunion to come; it’s about experiencing life’s great experiences. “I never suffered a love so fair,” McNally sings. Throughout the album, the mundane and natural are celebrated, and experiencing them connects her to something bigger than herself, a note first sounded on the album when she luxuriates in the sensations on “High.”
Bingham’s an integral part of Western Ballad. I won’t presume to be able to sort out what each brought to the songwriting partnership, but it’s telling that engineer Wesley Fontenot is listed among the musicians in the liner notes because unlike the more obviously rootsy albums that seemed to obscure the studio’s existence in “rawness,” the album is clearly and obviously produced. Accordions, banjos and lap steels are part of the instrumentation, but they’re only part of a psychedelic network of sound that evokes a dream-like state, and it’s a sound that came about by embracing the studio as part of the creative process and exploring the avenues it makes possible. But this isn’t a detour so much as another context for McNally. As with all her other albums, the sonic context counts. Here the signifiers of classic folk and country frame the songs, but they don’t limit them.
Too often, rawness is fetishized as somehow more “true” or “honest” without recognizing that it too is a concept and a product of the studio just as much as a more involved, involving sound is. On Western Ballad, McNally and Bingham have made an album that reaches more boldly and illuminates her thoughts more clearly than ever, in the process calling into questions a lot of assumptions about immediacy and honesty.