No more waiting

July 12, 2002


"Come on in through my screen door," singer-songwriter Shannon McNally sings in the opening seconds of her Capitol Records debut, "Jukebox Sparrows," an impressive album that follows that invitation with the down-home vibe of a back porch hootenanny.

The sensual wisdom of McNally's voice belies her age (she's only 29), while the deep roots of her mixture of blues, folk, country and rock are a bit of a surprise when you find out where she grew up (on the south shore of Long Island).

When the former anthropology major says that "it's been sort of a long trip" to reach this point in her career--she opens for John Mellencamp at the Tweeter Center tomorrow night--that's an understatement.

John Mellencamp, Shannon McNally

* 8 p.m. Saturday
* Tweeter Center, 19100 S. Ridgeland, Tinley Park
* Tickets, $17-$67.50
* (312) 559-1212

McNally was playing coffeehouses and small clubs in 1998 when she was discovered by Capitol talent scout Perry Watts-Russell, the man who signed Radiohead. Her first release for the label was a 2000 E.P., "Bolder Than Paradise," which she quickly followed up by recording her first full album, working with an impressive cast of backing musicians that included the great session drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's band, and the renowned guitarist Greg Leisz.

Then, much to McNally's frustration, came the waiting.

"Capitol was going through a lot of changes, it went on for a long time," she says. "When I signed, the music industry to me was this big sort of nebulous thing. I didn't know how it worked, and none of it made sense to me--they were gonna give me a pile of money and I could go make a record, which sounded like a good deal, and in actuality it was." But McNally had to wait more than a year for the disc's release.

"That was frustrating, because I was so excited with the record when I finished it. I had so much I wanted to say and talk about, and I wanted to play! You know, you're raring to go, so it's very difficult and very frustrating. But in the interim, I started going down to New Orleans a lot and I sort of started my own musical research; I met a lot of amazing people and I just kind of went to the root. I read a lot of books, I played my guitar, I listened to a lot of Harry Smith, and I wrote a boatload of new songs. It's not often you get a year where you don't really have to do anything. So while it was really frustrating, at the same time, I try to make the most of everything."

That philosophy comes through in conversation as well as in song. How does McNally define a good tune?

"I think it's pretty simple: Just its poignancy. What does it say?" she says. "I think it's pretty basic: a good melody, a good message and a good delivery. I've been thinking a lot lately about what inspires me to sit down and write. As you go through different stages in your life, you discover your own perspective, and you can see things that other people are missing, or that they're not focused on. I guess as a songwriter I look for the very basic things that other people have looked at a million times but aren't really seeing. I guess it's really just having something to say."

On emotional tunes such as the opening "Down and Dirty," "Bitter Blue," "Colorado" and the haunting "Bury My Heart on the Jersey Shore," McNally says plenty, with the depth of her vocal performances as much as her simple but poetic lyrics. Her initial brush with the big, bad music industry taught her plenty about its vagaries, but she remains committed to presenting a unique vision.

"I wanted the record to be the very best that it could be," she says. "I wasn't afraid of arrangement, and I wasn't afraid of preparation, but I knew exactly what I wanted, and I think that's the difference. I had a very, very strong vision. I think that record companies, for as much as they sort of put their two cents in, they're pretty relieved when you've got the vision. I knew exactly what I wanted and changing my vision wasn't an option--not because I wanted to make a point, but just because I didn't want to do it if I couldn't do it my way."

In the end, McNally backs up her initial invitations with a defiant self-confidence. "I'm going right out that front door like Butch and Sundance," she sings in another of the album's great lines. Not even the fact that she's never played a venue as large as the Tweeter Center throws her for a loop. "I'm kind of used to stepping in over my head," she says, "that panic of, 'Oh [crap], can I swim?' "

Somehow, I think the singer will do just fine--no life preserver needed.