Music is such a difficult trade these days that few pursue it full-time. Artists, especially those without recording contracts, have to come up with the capital to fund studio time, touring and promotion of their work. It's not exactly the romanticized job it appeared to be in 1960s and '70s. It's hard work. Just ask Shannon McNally.
In 1996, after a chance meeting with Los Lobos, McNally abandoned Long Island for the West Coast. The following year, her sultry vocals and Americana style earned her a deal with Capitol Records.
McNally quickly recognized the music business did not operate to her benefit: Her debut album, "Jukebox Sparrow," was recorded in 1997, but Capitol did not release it until 2002. Needless to say, Shannon McNally's experience with a major label was short-lived.
Determined to go it alone, despite not having a label's financial backing, McNally persevered. Several years and releases later, McNally is still in business, thanks her talent, dedication and a supportive fan base. Shannon McNally's most recent album, "Western Ballad," was released in March 2011.
Throughout her career, McNally has been branded folk, blues and a singer-songwriter. McNally prefers to call her art "North American Ghost Music." This is probably more appropriate, as she embraces music of years past and draws influence from a number of domestic sources, from Native Americans to traditional to classic rock.
The album title, "Western Ballad," is indicative of the songs within it. Most of the pieces are ballad-esque and have a country western tinge. There is also considerable zydeco influence, which is not surprising, as McNally has spent the last decade living in the Gulf.
Like anyone living in or around Louisiana, McNally has been profoundly affected by events of the last few years. McNally was forced to move from New Orleans to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She returned to the city during an emotionally tense time, to work on "Western Ballad," as the BP oil spill occurred just days before recording commenced.
"Western Ballad" captures the disposition of the landscape and people outside the studio. The intensity in some of McNally's lyrics and delivery are no doubt a product of her feelings for New Orleans. Several songs are a direct ode to the city, "Tristesse Oubliee" being the most apparent. A Cajun waltz, McNally sings the song entirely in French. The powerful "In My Own Second Line" is a direct nod to those who lived through Katrina.
"Ghost Music" is a fitting description for most of "Western Ballad." Like her voice, McNally's songs are darkly beautiful. McNally's affection for an ethereal sound is especially apparent "Memory of a Ghost." McNally and her producer, Mark Bingham, share the mic over a haunting backing vocal track and composition. It could easily belong on a soundtrack for a David Lynch movie.
"Western Ballad" is largely melancholy, yet it remains strangely appealing. The title track, an arrangement of the Allen Ginsberg poem, encapsulates this description. About death, the song conveys incredible beauty instead of coming off horribly depressing.
"Western Ballad" is a good rainy day listen. This Shannon McNally album, along with Willie Nelson, fits surprisingly well with the mood that results from such days.
Being dropped from a major label signals the end of a career for some. For Shannon McNally, it was a beginning. Free from the compromise and restrictions of a recording contract, she has been able to explore her creativity and develop by her own means. The result is a respectable artist with a musical and personal integrity few in the music business possess.
Shannon McNally is online at ShannonMcNally.com