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Warrior Between Worlds

Shannon McNally explains why her "ghost music" is beyond compare

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A lot of songs could have cut through the haze of heartbreak I was muddling through in that Memphis music store, four days after Hurricane Katrina nearly crushed my adopted city of New Orleans.

And it's possible any one of them would have struck me as being extremely meaningful right then -- in those first few desperate days, I felt everything on a cellular level. But I don't think I'd ever heard such hard-won hopefulness delivered in quite the same way as the couplet that follows, sung in a raw voice reminiscent of every blues I'd ever heard:

And you'll make it through the first part of a broken heart

Yes you'll make it through the worst part of a broken heart

I know I never needed to hear it so much as I did right then. "Shannon McNally," said the guy at the counter, eyeing me as I stood there in a daze. "She's from New Orleans."

Hard-won hopefulness runs through much of McNally's second release Geronimo -- named for the Apache warrior Guiyatle, whose name means "courage in the face of hardship" -- and it's a theme that resonates even more since the hurricane passed through our adopted hometown. Although she grew up on Long Island, New Orleans was always where McNally was coming from, musically and otherwise.

"Every single song reference that I grew up on, it all came from New Orleans," McNally said during a recent phone interview from Austin, where she was recording an EP with her producer and frequent bandmate Charlie Sexton. "When I'm there, it's in my face constantly that the definition, the aesthetic, of what made American music cool -- what made America cool -- came from there. All of it. All. Of. It."

Last August, McNally had just completed her summer tour and was looking forward to unwinding in her half-renovated house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward when the storm hit. Although she, her husband and her dogs evacuated safely to Mississippi, the question of whether or not they'll be able to return home permanently remains. "We change our minds hourly," she says, apparently without exaggerration. "When we're not there, we can't imagine going back. When we're there, we can't see leaving."

New Orleans has always been comprised of equal parts vitality and brutality, and it makes sense that McNally, who plays with plenty paradoxes of her own, would embrace its dichotomies. Combining a hippie's soulful intelligence (she has a degree in anthropology and speaks fluent yoga) with a cowboy's stoic heart, McNally makes it clear that living in New Orleans -- and being forced to leave -- has only strengthened her music.

"I don't think you can live there for any amount of time and not be, on some level, a better human being for it," she says, adding with a giggle "even if you're slightly shady. That's the thing about New Orleans for people who love it -- it reaffirms you, so that you know you're not an alien."

McNally's 2002 debut, Jukebox Sparrow, was somewhat lost in the singer-songwriter shuffle. Although her label hoped to groom her to become the next (fill in sexy-chick-singer name here), ultimately her style is, as she puts it, "too spiritual to ever be too glamorous."

Although not as overtly sexy as Jukebox Sparrow (the video for "Down and Dirty" from that first album would make a frat boy blush), the weightier Geronimo is ultimately more seductive. "I think I was colored in pastels before. Now the colors are deeper, thicker. There's more blood in my voice. So there's more confidence, in a way." But like most female musicians, McNally still suffers from excessive genre-spawning. Amazon.com crosslists her under no fewer than five categories, referring to her style as "rootsy pop/R&B/folk/alt-country."

"I've stopped fighting that," she says. "All I'm saying is that my music comes from a place that's been before. That's why I call it 'North American Ghost Music.' You want to call that Stevie Nicks, or Neil Young, or Lucinda Williams, or Sheryl Crow, I've got no problem with that. But nobody does what I do. I think what I'm doing is in between worlds."

Of course, such comparisons are meant only to flatter McNally. (And when she bends certain notes, she does sound an awful lot like Stevie Nicks...) But they fall short of conveying her best strength -- namely, her serious study of American music, something she's cultivated through collaboration, not comparison.

"The first time I went into the studio, they asked me, 'Who do you want to work with?' And I went straight to my album covers and read the names off," she remembers, laughing in hindsight at her own moxie. "I didn't know enough to be intimidated."

McNally wound up working with an incredibly high-caliber crew of musicians. And has toured with a list since that reads like a page from "Who's Who in American Songwriting:" Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, John Mellencamp, Ryan Adams, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and Rufus Wainwright, among others. Giving into the temptation to make flattering comparisons on someone else's behalf, McNally says of Wainwright, "He's the closest thing we've got to John Lennon."

"The thing is, Bob Dylan wanted to be Woody Guthrie, but he figured out that to be that, he had to be himself, times a hundred," she continues. "You want to be like Muddy Waters? You have to become an original. You have to invent the mold. So that's why comparisons don't work."

For McNally, music is less about who she chooses to imitate than which aspects of their work she chooses to learn from -- or, just as often, chooses to avoid. "I get lots of comparisons to Sheryl Crow, and I think she's such a skilled craftsman," she says. "But I don't think it's as spiritual as what I do. As far as Lucinda goes, I don't think what I do is as chaotic. I'm not into chaos."

Katrina, of course, threw McNally's life into chaos anyway. Now she has a Memphis Minnie lyric playing on her answering machine:

Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good

Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

But as so many artists have done in Katrina's aftermath, she's working hard to make sure the suffering is not in vain, jumping at every chance to perform and represent what she still thinks of as her hometown.

"You make this decision that you're not gonna die, that you're gonna survive," McNally says. "There's so much of that in black music -- because of how hard their lives have been, and are. It's why I'm so fascinated with the Apache warriors, too -- they were impervious to heat, hunger, exhaustion. When you have to push through extreme things, the art necessarily gets more crytalline."

Shannon McNally opens for Son Volt at Visulite Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 9pm. This is an all ages show. Tickets are $20. Ring 704-358-9200 for details.

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