Shannon McNally is a song poet, singer, and guitar slinger whose records have been placed under the Americana umbrella since 2002. That said, her music is so mercurial and vision so vast, the term only fits in the most general sense. McNally has worked with everyone from Jim Dickinson to Dr. John, from Jim Lauderdale to Dave Alvin, from Amy LaVere to Charlie Sexton. In McNally's songs and the ones she sings, everything from blues and country, to R&B and folk, to gospel and rock is given equal prominence and there is no past for her; all American music is eternally present.
Black Irish was born of personal pain. Its songs were birthed as McNally was caring for her terminally ill mother, going through a painful divorce, and raising her daughter alone. Years earlier she'd met Rodney Crowell (who was introduced to her work through producer John Leventhal) when he was auditioning singers. The pair became e-mail correspondents. For his part, after their initial encounter, Crowell felt compelled to "shepherd" her next album into being. Lucky for him, she agreed. To that end, he played on it, wrote the bluesy opener, "You Made Me Feel for You," contributed a co-write with Beth Nielsen Chapman on the transcendent country ballad "Isn't That Love?," sang and played on it, and enlisted a star-studded cast including Chapman, Emmylou Harris, guitarists Audley Freed and Colin Linden, bassists Byron House and Chris Wood, multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, and singer/songwriter Elizabeth Cook, to name scant few. McNally co-wrote three of the 12 cuts here, commencing with the mournful Celtic-tinged folk-blues "Banshee Moan." She follows it with the Stax organ-infused soul-blues of "I Went to the Well," and concludes with the Delaney & Bonnie cum Rolling Stones-tinged rock of "Roll Away the Stone."
The covers McNally and Crowell chose are prescient; they showcase McNally's command of any style she chooses. Susanna and Guy Clark's lilting "Black Haired Boy" and Harris' own "Prayer in Open D" offer classic Americana, while J.J. Cale's "Low Rider" handles the blues end of that spectrum. McNally also scores big with three R&B covers. First is a daring (and exceptional) read of Stevie Wonder's "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It," filtered through the lenses of Allen Toussaint, Marcia Ball, and Jim Ford. The Band's "It Makes No Difference" is a wrenching performance that reflects every ounce of pain and unquenchable longing in the original -- and fully reflects Robbie Robertson's desire to write a proper soul song. Closer "Let's Go Home" by Pops Staples is a rowdy country gospel shout rooted in the Mississippi soil upon which he wrote and McNally lives. Crowell's accomplishment as producer on Black Irish is delivering a focused portrait of McNally as a visionary songwriter and stellar interpretive vocalist. Those skills, combined with his influence, make her music stand out for its wide accessibility and its deep emotional resonance that she may indeed be bloodied but is defiantly unbowed and empowered for what comes next.