The Meaning Behind “Ceremony” by Shannon McNally and How a Trip to an Indian Reservation Gave the Song Meaning

Shannon McNally’s new single “Ceremony” took a long time to complete and arrived at one of the lowest points in her life. But the Long Island, New York-born singer survived, and endurance has defined her long career.  

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After college, she busked on the streets of Paris, signed with Capital Records, and released her debut album Jukebox Sparrows (2002). Though she had the support of revered musicians like Rodney Crowell, Charlie Sexton, and Dr. John, McNally languished for years in record label purgatory.  

However, with nostalgia as a guiding light, she continues to make music the old way—slow and analog—while traveling the country like a cosmic bohemian. She released The Waylon Sessions in 2021 and is finishing a new collection of songs on the eve of her summer tour with Mike Campbell.

McNally is a little like a character in a Bob Dylan song. She could be some invented figure who, like the narrator in “Tangled Up in Blue,” drifted down to New Orleans before crashing with revolutionaries in a basement on Montague Street. Instead, she exists outside the myth as a scientist exploring the human condition through songwriting.

“Ceremony” is like an old language translated.

The New World

Lyrically, “Ceremony” animates McNally’s long fascination with Native Americans. A former anthropology major in college, she studied the struggles of Indigenous cultures against changing political and socioeconomic winds.

Rolling a long way from the sea
The sky is the color of grenadine
Horizon cools the nerves like codeine

The song is dedicated to Leonard Peltier, who many believe was wrongfully convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975 on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Civil rights leaders like Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa called for clemency, and McNally isn’t the only songwriter moved by his story.

Steven Van Zandt recorded “Leonard Peltier” for his 1989 album Revolution, and the E Street Band guitarist continues to lobby for Peltier’s release. Also, U2’s hit song “Vertigo” originated as “Native Son”—inspired by the Native American rights activist.

An Old Writers Trick

McNally began writing “Ceremony” years ago, but it remained unfinished. Looking for inspiration, she used an old writing method of opening a book to a random page and pointing to a line for inspiration.

The kindling sentence arrived by way of an author’s note in Larry McMurtry’s novel Leaving Cheyenne. He wrote, “The Cheyenne of this book is that part of the cowboy’s day’s circle which is earliest and best: his blood’s country and his heart’s pastureland.”

With McMurtry’s words as inspiration, McNally scribbled lyrics.

Like an ancient language down on the rez
Remembered by the old, imagined by the rest
Ceremony returns you to your blood’s country

A Failing Tour Led to Pine Ridge Reservation

In 2013, McNally toured in support of her album Small Town Talk (Songs of Bobby Charles). The tour bled money, and eventually there was no money left to lose.

Dejected, she canceled the tour and headed home. While traveling through South Dakota, she visited Pine Ridge Reservation and Crazy Horse Memorial. The experience profoundly moved McNally, and the old song she’d carried for years finally found meaning.

Thoughts are like rivers; they flow downstream
Words are like currents; they move in between
Songs have a power when they are true and lean

She views “Ceremony” as a prayer, though one with the same earthy roots that define her music. Years later, McNally connected in Nashville with producer Mike McCarthy, known for his work with Spoon and Patty Griffin, among others. (The Gaelic prefix in McNally, McMurtry, and McCarthy is a curious recurrence of her story.)

They worked in McCarthy’s studio while listening to demos of McNally’s unfinished songs. “Ceremony” began with a guitar and vocal recording, which McCarthy shaped into a band arrangement. The sessions included legendary studio musicians Greg Leisz on pedal steel and drummer Chad Cromwell.

Tom Petty’s Guitarist Came Calling

Mike Campbell called McNally and invited her to open his upcoming summer tour. The tour begins on June 22 at Brown County Music Center in Nashville, Indiana, and ends July 16 in Toronto.

The former Heartbreaker will front his band, The Dirty Knobs, a band with rougher edges than Petty’s group—though Campbell’s voice has a similar cadence. The Dirty Knobs—named for a broken amplifier dial—echo the ’60s rock and roll groups that influenced his former group.

A Long Journey to an Unknown Destination

Shannon McNally is a true lifer with a kindred spirit in Mike Campbell. “Ceremony” may be her prayer, but it sounds like a glacial hymn transcribed by the patient hand of time.

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Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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