Shannon McNally: A major label’s nightmare
I loaned my copy of Shannon McNally’s new CD, “Geronimo,” to my cohort B., who, naturally, loved it. In anticipation of McNally’s concert tonight at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, B. shared “Geronimo” with friends, several of whom were impressed enough to put tonight’s gig on their social agenda.Which is just about the response McNally expected for her second CD. And it is exactly the opposite reaction McNally expected – correctly – from the record executives presumably in charge of her career.A few years ago, Capitol Records, the label for which McNally used to record, offered the singer-songwriter this odd deal: She could have $200,000 to record three songs with a producer of the label’s choice. Or she could have half that amount to make an entire album with Charlie Sexton, Bob Dylan’s longtime bandmate and the producer McNally wanted to work with. When I asked McNally if it was an easy pick, she made a noise – “phhhthh” – that indicated the silliness of my question. “Geronimo,” a smart and ballsy roots-rock record with slight overtones of Bonnie Raitt, was indeed produced by Sexton. And it was released, last month, on Back Porch Records and not Capitol, which opted to pass on the album.”I think they were insulted that I wanted to do it my way,” said McNally, a cocksure 32-year-old. “They said, ‘how does she have the audacity to want to work with someone from Bob Dylan’s band?'”McNally’s strong opinions about the big-label music machine are based on more than her experience with “Geronimo.” McNally, a Long Island native who studied religious anthropology and languages at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College, signed with Capitol in 1997. But her debut album, “Jukebox Sparrows,” wasn’t released until 2002, an interminable wait that McNally doesn’t struggle to describe.”Infuriating’s a good word. It’s horrible,” she said. “They were devils. Horrible human beings,” she continued, referring to the president of Capitol “and his henchmen.”So just what does an obviously talented young musician do when the label chiefs show such lack of support and trust? “You convince them to give you the money to make another record, do it exactly the way you know you should do it in the first place, and then get it out of their hands so you can get it to people who want to hear it,” McNally said.McNally says most of the disagreement boils down to gender issues. Capitol, she says, wants its female signees to sound and look a certain way.”They had an idea of the way women make records,” McNally said. “These are the people who put out Lisa Marie Presley’s record, Kylie Minogue’s record, the last Liz Phair record. They’re old-school gangsters and wanted something kind of trite and shrill with the sex quotient over the top. They couldn’t see me for who I was.” To bolster her case, McNally might have mentioned Shelby Lynne, another Capitol artist. Lynne followed her Grammy-winning “I Am Shelby Lynne” with “Love, Shelby,” whose absurdly sexed-up cover and over-produced sound drained Lynne’s career of some momentum. “Love, Shelby” was produced by Glen Ballard, who has previously worked with Alanis Morissette.McNally wanted to put physical as well as emotional distance between herself and Capitol. “I was ill from being in L.A. I was skinny and depleted and fried and musically malnourished,” she said. “I needed to go commando and be underground and be somewhere I couldn’t feel them.”She discovered that place on one day in 2001. Visiting New Orleans, she met Wallace Lester – former drummer of Boulder band Zuba and now McNally’s husband – went to a rehearsal of the Mardi Gras Indians, and saw New Orleans guitar icon Snooks Eaglin. “I got a major dose of New Orleans,” she said by phone, from her home just outside the French Quarter. “That was it, really. I knew I was supposed to be here.” It does seem an ideal choice; New Orleans is a music town that the music business has largely overlooked.McNally recorded “Geronimo” in a studio in southwest Louisiana with an amazing cast: Sexton, who played guitars as well as produced, and bassist Tony Garnier, also from Dylan’s band; keyboardist Ian McLagan from the Faces; and pedal steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Liesz, who has played with Wilco and Lucinda Williams. The multifaceted album moves from the aggressive country rocker “The Hard Way” to a slow, stirring cover of Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blue,” from moments of vulnerability (“The Worst Part of a Broken Heart”) to utter confidence (“Miracle Mile”).”I’m very conscious of my moods and my senses and they’re all allowed,” McNally said. “That’s the great part of being a songwriter, you can let all those sides come up.”McNally says her influences are “all the regulars, the unavoidable ones.” That list includes Dylan, Neil Young, the Band and Leon Russell – and no women. To McNally, the music industry has done its dirty work effectively: apart from Gillian Welch, McNally can’t find a contemporary female musician who has made an impact on her.”I don’t listen to much women stuff. I find most women lately doing this annoying, little girl, precious thing,” she said, noting an admiration for older soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington. “And I can’t stand it, because I love women. I think they’re going to save the world. But not this year, not in my record collection.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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