July 12, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
"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
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.
* 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
"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.