Steve Earle w/ Shannon McNally 2/15/19Friday, February 15 2019 6:00pm Doors / 8:00pm Start
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Steve Earle w/ Shannon McNally 2/15/19
If you ever had any doubt about where Steve Earle’s musical roots are planted, his new collection, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, makes it perfectly plain. “There’s nothing ‘retro’ about this record,” he states, “I’m just acknowledging where I’m coming from.” So You Wannabe an Outlaw is the first recording he has made in Austin, Texas. Earle has lived in New York City for the past decade but he acknowledges, “Look, I’m always gonna be a Texan, no matter what I do. And I’m always going to be somebody who learned their craft in Nashville. It’s who I am.”
In the 1970s, artists such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser gave country music a rock edge, some raw grit and a rebel attitude. People called what these artists created “outlaw music.” The results were country’s first Platinum-certified records, exciting and fresh stylistic breakthroughs and the attraction of a vast new youth audience to a genre that had previously been by and for adults. In the eighties, The Highwaymen was formed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Their final album “The Road Goes On Forever” released in 1996 began with the Steve Earle song “The Devil’s Right Hand.”
Steve Earle’s 2017 collection, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, is an homage to outlaw music. “I was out to unapologetically ‘channel’ Waylon as best as I could.” says Earle. “This record was all about me on the back pick-up of a Fender Telecaster on an entire record for the first time in my life. The singing part of it is a little different. I certainly don’t sound like Waylon Jennings.”
“I moved to Nashville in November of 1974, and right after that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger came out. I was around when Waylon was recording [the 1975 masterpiece] Dreaming My Dreams. Guitar Town (Earle’s 1986 breakthrough album) wound up being kind of my version of those types of songs,” Earle recalls.
“This new record started because T Bone Burnett called me and wanted a specific song to be written for the first season of (the TV series) Nashville. It was for the character whose brother was in prison. So I wrote ‘If Mama Coulda Seen Me,’ and they used it. Then Buddy Miller asked me to write another one for the show and I wrote ‘Lookin’ for a Woman,’ which they didn’t wind up using. I’d been listening to Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes again, and I decided to start writing in that direction.”
The new songs include the gentle, acoustic folk ballads “News From Colorado” and “The Girl on the Mountain.” “Fixin’ to Die,” on the other hand, is a dark shout from the hell of Death Row. “The Firebreak Line” returns Earle to his pile-driving, country-rock roots. “You Broke My Heart” is a sweet, simple salute to the 1950s sounds of Webb Pierce or Carl Smith. “Walkin’ in L.A.” is a twanging country shuffle. The guitar-heavy “Sunset Highway” is an instant-classic escape song. And the deeply touching “Goodbye Michelangelo” is Steve Earle’s farewell to his mentor, Guy Clark, who passed away last year. “It was written right after me and Rodney Crowell and Shawn Camp and a few other folks had taken Guy’s ashes to Terry Allen’s house in New Mexico,” Earle says. “I was only 19 when I came to Nashville. Guy and Susanna Clark finished raising me. Guy was a great cheerleader for me.”
Earle is backed on the new album by his long time band The Dukes (guitarist Chris Masterson, fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore, bassist Kelly Looney, and new members drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson). “We did the Guitar Town 30th-anniversary tour last year,” he said. “And that was perfect to write the last of the songs for this record. Because I had the band out there with me, and we could try out some stuff.”
“Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes was the template for the new album. And I’ve always considered that record to be really important. I consider his Honky Tonk Heroes the Exile on Main Street of country music.”
“I knew when I wrote ‘Walkin’ in L.A.’ that I wanted Johnny Bush to sing on it. I’ve known Johnny since 1973 when I was playing a restaurant in San Antonio. Joe Voorhees, who played piano for Bush, and I were stoned and hungry, so we went to Bush’s and raided the icebox in his kitchen. We’re sitting there, and Joe goes white and says, ‘John!’ I turned around and there was a .357 Magnum pointed at the back of my head. So that’s how I really met Johnny Bush. Years later, he signed an autograph to me that said, ‘Steve, I’m glad I didn’t pull the trigger.’”
Steve Earle’s third duet partner on So You Wannabe an Outlaw is Miranda Lambert. The two co-wrote their vocal collaboration “This Is How it Ends.” “I learned from Guy Clark that co-writing might lead me to write some stuff that I wouldn’t write otherwise,” comments Earle. “The song is Miranda’s title, and some of the very best lines in it are hers.”
So You Want To Be An Outlaw is dedicated to Jennings, who died in 2002. The deluxe CD and the vinyl version of the album include Earle’s remakes of the timeless Waylon Jennings anthem “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” as well as Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” which Jennings popularized as well as Earle’s versions of “Sister’s Coming Home” and “The Local Memory,” songs that first appeared on Willie Nelson discs. Nelson is his duet partner on the new album’s title track.
Steve Earle has turned many musical corners during his illustrious career. He has been equally acclaimed as a folk troubadour, a rockabilly raver, a contemplative bluesman, a honky-tonk rounder, a snarling rocker and even a bluegrass practitioner. This definitive Americana artist has won three Grammy Awards, for 2005’s The Revolution Starts Now, 2008’s Washington Square Serenade and 2010’s Townes.
He is also the author of the 2011 short-story collection Doghouse Roses and novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Earle has been featured as an actor in two HBO series, The Wire and Treme, and on stage in The Exonerated. His film work includes roles in suchrespected features as The World Made Straight (2015), Leaves of Grass (2009) and Dixieland (2015). For the past decade he has hosted the weekly show Hardcore Troubadour for the Outlaw Country Channel on SiriusXM Radio and he is a longtime social and political activist whose causes have included the abolition of the death penalty and the removal of the Confederate symbol from the Mississippi State flag.
Earle has collaborated on recordings with such superb talents as Sheryl Crow, The Indigo Girls, The Pogues, Lucinda Williams Shawn Colvin, Patti Smith, Chris Hillman, The Fairfield Four and The Del McCoury Band. His songs have been used in more than fifty films and have been recorded by such legends as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, Vince Gill and Waylon Jennings (who recorded Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand” twice).
Black Irish is McNally’s most personal project yet, which is saying a lot, given the Americana singer-songwriter’s deep catalog. But it speaks to the power of connection, and the power of music to create it and to reflect it. The kick off track “You Made Me Feel For You”, was written by her producer, Americana icon, Rodney Crowell, and serves as a metaphor for their collaboration - how his particular understanding of her unique gifts pulled out the career-defining album many have been waiting for since she came on the scene.
The album concept began in 2013, as she was going through what she calls “a miserable divorce,” raising her daughter Maeve, and nursing her terminally ill mother Maureen. Her parents had relocated to Holly Springs, Mississippi, and McNally moved in, caring for her mom until her death in 2015.
“I had no vim or vigor in me for a couple of years,” she admits. What saved her was her email relationship with Crowell, who’d been talking about producing her since 2012. He writes in the liner notes for Black Irish that their musical connection was immediate, describing McNally as “this dark- eyed beauty who wrote grown-up songs, played a pretty mean Fender Stratocaster and, at times, sounded a lot like Jesse Mae Hemphill. From our first meeting I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was the right man for the job of shepherding the next Shannon McNally record into existence.”
It wasn’t easy. Too depressed to write, McNally recorded a favorite Emmylou Harris song on her laptop and worked up the nerve to email it to him. With lines like “There’s a river of darkness in my blood,” “Prayer in Open D” spoke to pain she couldn’t verbalize. “And he called me back and said, ‘That’s gorgeous, you were meant to do that song. Do more.” That was all she needed.
“We started this really wonderful thing of just lobbing song titles back and forth. And I just sat at that table and learned about a dozen tunes, my favorite covers, anything to spark a fire in this really dark turn.”
She co-wrote three of the album’s 12 songs – one with producer Crowell, who also penned two more for her; the rest include personal favorites by Stevie Wonder (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It”), Robbie Robertson (“It Makes No Difference”), and J.J. Cale (“Low Rider”). The result is an album that stands with the best of classic vocal interpreters like Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur.
“I just love great songs,” she says. “I’m inspired by Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Bill Withers, Mavis Staples. None of them hesitate to sing any song they feel like singing, even if they didn’t write it. I think great songs need to be spotlighted, they need to recycle back up into the consciousness.”
Today, McNally makes her home in the Mississippi hill country, “the most Southern place on earth,” she says. But her musical journey began in New York, where she was born on St. Patrick’s Day and raised in Hempstead, Long Island. Growing up in the age of ‘80s MTV-pop, she found an escape route. “When I was 12, my uncle gave me a J.J. Cale album. That saved me from the Debbie Gibson era.” So began her obsession with roots music. (She pays tribute to that early influence here with a swampy take on Cale’s “Low Rider.”)
McNally became a performing singer/songwriter/guitarist in college and eventually signed with Capitol Records. After some time in Los Angeles, she moved to New Orleans soaking up that city’s music, culminating in her 2013 tribute to singer/songwriter Bobby Charles, Small Town Talk, with an all-star band that included her producer Dr. John. (Earlier, she’d recorded a definitive version of Charles’ “Tennessee Blues” on 2005’s Geronimo.)
Between those albums she’d moved to North Mississippi as a Katrina refugee, and became part of legendary producer Jim Dickinson’s extended musical family. “Jim was the first person I met up there. He was a big mentor for me.” She sings about her early Mississippi days on “Roll Away the Stone,” a swaggering, horn-driven, Stones-inspired rocker, as well as “I Went to the Well,” a slinky blues co-written with Garry Burnside, the youngest of legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside’s 13 children.
The third McNally original, and an album standout, is “Banshee Moan,” about her experiences in the music industry, experiences common to working women everywhere. “I wrote that a ways back, previous to the
rebirth of the women's movement we've seen of late. I’m thrilled to see women truly engaged and pissed off again.” With its haunting melody and McNally’s rich, deep-blue vocals, “Banshee Moan” is no mere protest song, it’s a howl of the collective female spirit, equal parts softness and strength.
Black Irish was recorded in Nashville, but its distinctive sense of place lies 210 miles west, where Memphis meets Mississippi. The primary colors of American music are black and white, and Black Irish displays that hybrid in many shades, mixing country, blues, soul, rock, folk balladry and classic pop.
“Sense of place” is important to McNally. “I don’t do anything half-assed,” she says with a laugh. “I tend to move into a place. I’m a Pisces and that’s a water sign. And water takes on the shape of the vessel that carries it. When I lived in New Orleans I became fast friends with Bobby Charles and Dr. John and was really kind of consumed whole by that. And then, when I came up here (to Mississippi) the blues stuff was so organic and authentic and natural that I kind of got consumed by it.”
That’s her approach to Black Irish. Whether singing her own songs or others’, she “moves into” them, making them hers.
When it came time to record McNally enlisted her friend, Memphis soul- gospel powerhouse Wendy Moten on background vocals, while Crowell called in some of Music City’s finest, including guitarists Colin Linden and Audley Freed, bassists Michael Rhodes and David Santos, and drummer Jerry Roe.
For those familiar with Levon Helm’s ramshackle take on Muddy Waters’ “The Stuff You Got to Watch,” McNally’s smoothly swinging rockabilly/ jump blues will be a revelation. It’s her tribute to Muddy. “I love how classy he was, how sharp-dressed and handsome, with his pompadour and his gold and his perfect suit.”
To McNally, the late Susanna Clark’s song about Townes Van Zandt, “Black Haired Boy” (with Emmylou and Elizabeth Cook singing harmony) is a bookend to “Prayer in Open D,” the two most “singer-songwriter” tracks, both featuring Crowell’s fingerpicking.
“Isn’t That Love,” by Crowell and Beth Nielsen Chapman, expands the production with an organic pop feel. It’s McNally’s finest vocal showcase, her voice soaring into hitherto unheard upper registers. “I love Otis Redding and all those great soul singers who go right up there and get to that place,” she says. “That was the scariest, being that honest and vulnerable and that far out on a limb vocally. It’s liberating.”
Another challenge was The Band’s “It Makes No Difference,” originally sung to tragic perfection by the late Rick Danko. “I cried all over it in the studio, and I had to sing it a bunch of times, ‘cause I just couldn't keep it together,” she remembers. “And that’s where you’re supposed to be, the emotional intensity on the precipice of ‘I’m about to lose it. I’m about to break down, and it’s going to take everything I have not to.’”
She inhabits that song, her performance more resilient than Danko’s. “You don’t have to agree to the abyss,” McNally says. “You can be a quality singer and songwriter and not just drown yourself in the bottle. Everybody’s a little tortured if you do this; I’d just like to be there for the long haul.”
From that darkness comes light, as McNally and company close Black Irish with the joyous, roof-raising Delta gospel of The Staple Singers’ “Let’s Go Home.”
She won’t be staying long. With Black Irish, Shannon McNally moves into the next part of her journey.