Shannon McNally's sixth studio album has one thing in common with the other five -- it defies easy categorization. Released in 2009, Coldwater was rooted in the blues and greasy country-rock; it was made out of love for from-the-soil music that she shared with her collaborator, the legendary Jim Dickinson. (He passed away a few months after it was completed.) Western Ballad reflects interior, languid textures; ambient spaciousness; flowing guitars; sparse, purposeful percussion; and haunting melodies. This time out, McNally worked with songwriter/engineer Mark Bingham. The pair (along with a slew of guests) recorded at New Orleans' Piety Street Recording with engineer Wesley Fontenot. Piety Street is famous for its warmth and open spaces. As such, the studio is an actual character in this music; a natural collaborator, and reflects that identity in each of the album's 11 songs. McNally and Bingham co-wrote nine original songs, ranging from the jangling folk-rock of "Memory of a Ghost" to the shimmering "When I Am Called," the Cajun waltz "Tristesse Oubliée," the slow, skittering rock & roll shuffle of "Thunderhead," and the title track -- whose words come from a poem by Allen Ginsberg that was arranged by Bingham years ago but not recorded until he found the right singer. The dreamy Southern soul in "Toast" sounds utterly natural in McNally's unique contralto and slippery phrasing. The old-school honky tonk in the traditional "Little Stream of Whiskey" (with an off-kilter, seemingly loose arrangement by Bingham and a stellar guitar break by McNally) sets up the balladic closer. While "In My Own Second Line" doesn't stick to a fixed rhythmic structure, it does offer its own limpid sense of flow-and-go, with a sung lyric that is as moving as it is true. While the catchall for McNally's impossible-to-pigeonhole music is "Americana," that hardly does it justice--as the diversity on Western Ballad attests. Only Gram Parsons' term "Cosmic American Music" begins to touch her mercurial, changeling roots aesthetic, though she calls it "North American Ghost Music." McNally is a Zen-like, post-Beat song poet; her only peers are other writer/visionaries like Tom Russell, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, all of whom understand traditional forms implicitly, and who bend them to serve their own ends, which are, in the end, those of the song. Western Ballad is McNally's masterpiece -- at least thus far.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek