Shannon McNally: Black Irish

Shannon McNally
Black Irish
(Compass)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to say why Shannon McNally isn’t a bigger Americana star.

She has released seven good to great great roots blues/rock/swamp/folk/country/whatever solo albums, toured tirelessly since her 2002 debut, possesses a distinctive, husky voice that’s both powerful and subtle, worked with legends such as Dr. John (on 2013’s Bobby Charles covers album) and the late Jim Dickinson (he passed soon after finishing McNally’s Western Ballad), recorded and/or wrote songs with Jim Lauderdale, Dave Alvin, Charlie Sexton, Amy LaVere among others, and toured with Son Volt, John Mellencamp and, most significantly, Rodney Crowell.

It’s that last entry that looms large on McNally’s first collection in four years. Crowell jumps in as producer, bringing with him top-tier Nashville musicians such as guitarists Colin Linden and Audley Freed. He likely influenced some song choices on the cover-heavy set list too.

It’s another eclectic collection for McNally who is as comfortable singing Stevie Wonder’s soul pop gem “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” as Pops Staples’ thumping gospel “Let’s Go Home” and J.J. Cale’s obscure “Low Rider” (not the War hit).  Not surprisingly, Crowell contributes a tune in the opening gutsy blues rocking “You Make Me Feel for You” and probably had a hand in recommending Emmylou Harris’ “Prayer in Open D,” a lovely, bittersweet ballad performed with sparse, stark accompaniment, the better to highlight McNally’s stunning voice.

Although she’s a sturdy guitarist, the singer focuses solely on vocals here, emphasizing all the emotion inherent in Robbie Robertson’s Band classic “It Makes No Difference” and unearthing Susanna and Guy Clark’s poignant “Black Haired Boy” with Harris and Elizabeth Cook providing sweet harmonies.

She digs into blues on a rollicking version of Muddy Waters’ “The Stuff You Gotta Watch,” another often overlooked gem in the bluesman’s overstuffed catalog and adds country twang to her own “I Went to the Well,” an original with walking bass and Booker T. styled-organ that sounds so classic, most will believe it’s a Stax cover. And for those who didn’t think McNally could rock out, she proves otherwise on the Stones-styled “Roll Away the Stone” with Jim Hoke doing his best Bobby Keys honking sax impression.

In other words, there is something for every roots-loving, singer-songwriting fan in these dozen tracks. With any luck and the right promotion, it ought to move McNally to the forefront of Americana artists, where she clearly belongs.