On her 2005 album, Geronimo, Shannon McNally included her version of the Bobby Charles song “Tennessee Blues.”
Small Town Talk, McNally’s latest, is a start-to-finish tribute to the late songwriter who’s best known for composing such early rock ’n’ roll hits as “Walking to New Orleans” (a Fats Domino staple) and “But I Do” (covered by Clarence “Frogman” Henry).
But it wasn’t the famous songs by Charles that piqued McNally’s interest in his work and inspired her to make Small Town Talk. It was his self-titled 1972 album on the Bearsville label that featured contributions from Band bassist Rick Danko as well as John Simon, the group’s early producer.
“I was a huge Band fan, and this was just an incredible extension of The Band,” explains McNally, who discovered the album in 2000 and met Charles in 2002. “I love that production — how easy it was and tone-sensitive it was. It’s unpretentious. To me, it was intense chemistry and honest without working at it.”
That dynamic and end result can also be said of Small Town Talk, which McNally made with co-producer Dr. John (a.k.a. Mac Rebennack) after pitching the project to him during the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“There wasn’t a lot of preproduction on this record,” McNally says. “Mac and I had talked a lot, we picked out the songs, and I knew it was going to be the Lower 911 band and Mac [playing them]. And I figured we’d just go in and sing the songs.”
All of the songs were recorded in one or two takes, with McNally and company knocking out three or four tunes per day, she says.
“The fellas would listen to Bobby’s versions, and we would find the appropriate key for me, and then we would just sing it,” McNally adds. “All of the real producing sort of happened on the spot with the band, which had been playing together for so long.”
Charles (who died in 2010) was present during the core recording sessions and, according to McNally, he was comfortable discussing his own material for the project.
“Bobby was a fan of Bobby,” McNally says with a laugh. “He didn’t have hang-ups about himself. … He liked his songs; he wrote them and they were good. Initially, I wanted to recut that whole Bearsville record, but both Mac and Bobby brought [other] songs to my attention, like ‘Can’t Pin a Color’ and ‘String of Hearts.’ ”
Those songs are among the ones featuring special guests: Luther Dickinson plays guitar on “Can’t Pin a Color,” while Vince Gill sings with McNally on “String of Hearts.”
Asked why Small Town Talk wasn’t released sooner, McNally chalks it up to the upheaval of the recording industry over the last five years.
“It’s a completely different beast now,” she says. “Basically, I realized I was going to have to put it out myself, and I didn’t want to blow it. I just figured I would wait until the right time. Everybody talks about DIY and how you can put your own records out, but it’s just not that simple. There’s a lot to it, and it takes quite a bit of money to do it well. And I thought this record deserved as good as I could get it.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Shannon McNally on tour (schedule subject to change):
* April 23: Spin Street — Memphis, Tenn. (in-store performance)
* April 27: Double Decker Festival — Oxford, Miss.
* April 28: Callaghan’s Irish Social Club — Mobile, Ala.
* April 29: Little Gem Saloon — New Orleans
* April 30: Louisiana Music Factory — New Orleans (in-store performance)
* April 30: Rock ’n’ Bowl — New Orleans (second annual Bobby Charles tribute)
* May 3: Beale Street Music Festival — Memphis, Tenn.
* May 8: Johnny D’s — Somerville, Mass.
* May 9: Iron Horse — Northampton, Mass.
* May 10: Club Helsinki — Hudson, N.Y.
* May 11: Valley Players Theater — Waitsfield, Vt.
* May 12: Concerts in the Studio — Freehold, N.J.
* May 16: Hill Country Barbecue — Washington, D.C.
* May 17: Joe’s Pub — New York
* May 21: World Cafe — Wilmington, Del.
* May 23: Third and Lindsley — Nashville, Tenn.
* May 24: Headliners Music Hall — Louisville, Ky.
* May 28: Old Rock House — St. Louis
* May 29: Knuckleheads Saloon — Kansas City, Mo.
* May 30: Martyrs’ — Chicago
* May 31: Ignition Garage — Goshen, Ind.