Roots music’s rhythmic hold winds like a vine through singer/songwriter Shannon McNally’s music.
The Grammy-nominated blues-Americana performer was born in New York, but logged years in Mississippi, known as the birthplace of America’s music, and she absorbed the rich vibe that comes with such submersion.
She’s back to share that and more in a July 25 concert at Duling Hall in Jackson. Now primarily in Nashville where she’s at work on upcoming albums, McNally will pull a cross-section from her ample musical catalogue, including her most recent “Black Irish,” and “Small Town Talk,” her tribute to songwriter Bobby Charles with Dr. John.
McNally’s path seemed destined to pull her South early on. She’d been been living and making records in Los Angeles for several years when she hit burnout in that city. “I fell in love with New Orleans because of the live music scene, essentially. First time I was down there, I ended up in the Maple Leaf, seeing a brass band in the middle of the night, and thought, ‘I could live here. This is an option.’ And then, boom, that’s where I was.”
New Orleans became her home until Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated the area; evacuation from the storm landed her in Mississippi, where (now former) husband, Wallace Lester, has family. They ended up in Taylor — “People really took good care of us,” she says — and then settled in Holly Springs. “We are both very drawn to the Hill country,” the region bordering Tennessee and known for its North Mississippi hill country blues.
“We’re into the blues,” says McNally, who did a number of albums with legendary producer Jim Dickinson and an album with Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars). The environment, too, had an effect. “There’s an intense casualness that comes with the territory of Mississippi, particularly north Mississippi. It’s a very obviously deep, deep history. And, there’s no way to understand it, or to absorb it, without being completely submerged in it — to the point that it becomes normal for you.
“It’s a very distinct place. It’s a very unique place. … It just gives you a really deep understanding, and changes the way you hold your instrument — for the better,” she says, describing the deep centering a musician can gain.
“That’s the thing people listen for, and that’s what you can get in Mississippi. That’s what you can learn,” says McNally, who also counts Oxford in her state residency count.
It’s an appreciation that swings both ways. The Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters awarded McNally’s “Black Irish” the 2018 win in the contemporary music composition category. “I was really proud of it. I was pretty dedicated to Mississippi … it was just a little difficult to make a living there on the level I would like to do it,” she says, noting it was very tough, too, to leave the state. “That award really meant a lot to me because it was just recognition that I was full-in while I was there.” Getting wrapped into the state’s rich legacy of arts and writing “is really profound … a very big honor.”
“Black Irish” was her most personal to date, when a culmination of life events came to bear. “My mother had just passed away, after a grueling battle with breast cancer … I was getting a divorce, and trying to figure out what happens next, with my career and songwriting. It was that moment that comes in life and takes you out at the knees.
“It was just like, OK, whaddya got? There was no hiding. I was in an emotionally raw place.” She’d teamed with producer Rodney Crowell, “a real hero of mine, and one of the best songwriters alive,” she says, “right in the center vein of American songwriting.” She co-wrote several songs and the album also includes her favorites by Stevie Wonder, Robbie Robertson and J.J. Cale.
McNally’s rich and haunting “Banshee Moan,” with its “damned if you do … damned if you don’t” opening, struggles of working women message and sisterhood slant, coincided with the surge of the #MeToo movement — serendipitous timing that McNally found stunning, validating and a relief. “I felt part of this massive awakening of consciousness happening globally — and that idea that, I didn’t imagine this. This is real.
“It’s not easy to be a musician, not easy to be a songwriter. It chooses you more than you choose it,” she says. “So when you get the validation of a cultural movement, happening in a piece of your own heart and in your own voice, you know you’re doing the right thing with your life.”
After catching her breath, artistically, over the past two years, McNally is back at full strength, freshly invigorated to tackle what’s next with “a real explosion of creativity.”
“I’ve suddenly got a lot going on,” she says, from hooking up with Blue Rose Music to her work on two records — one of original music, and the other a deeply classic country record. She’s working with Texas country singer/songwriter Terry Allen of Lubbock, and just came off the road with Steve Earle.
“I’m really just digging into Nashville, digging into the pool of players here, and it’s like, suddenly, there’s nothing in my way.”
Shannon McNally performs with her full band at Duling Hall in Jackson, 8 p.m. July 25; doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 advance (ardenland.net) and $15 day of show.