Back before the world retreated into makeshift fallout shelters for a year of Netflix binging, board games and what Warren Zevon referred to as splendid isolation, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Shannon McNally was invited to play a Music City benefit concert. The parameters were simple; bring in two classic country songs to perform with the venue's assembled house band. McNally had a blast, and, at her performance's conclusion, she experienced an epiphany.
"I was real excited about it," recalls McNally from her Santa Fe, N.M. tour stop. "I've always been too country for pop and too Americana for country, so there was something liberating about playing country with a real good country band. And they were young players."
"Since I've been making records, I've worked with wonderful people but they've always been a lot older than me. It was sort of a light-hearted benefit, and I thought, 'Man, that was so good. Those guys could play anything. I bet they could even play Waylon.' And all of a sudden, it was like, 'What would you do if you could do anything?' And I went, 'Waylon Jennings.'"
So, the seed was planted for "The Waylon Sessions," McNally's 14th studio release since her 2002 debut, "Jukebox Sparrows." Regardless of her "too-something-for-somebody" stylistic paradigm, McNally has been just right for her stellar peer group, guesting on albums by Jim Lauderdale, Son Volt, her friend/mentor Rodney Crowell, Luther Dickinson and Terry Allen and opening for Dave Alvin, Stevie Nicks and Ryan Adams.
"The Waylon Sessions" wasn't McNally's first tiptoe through another artist's tulips: in 2013, she released "Small Town Talk," a tribute to Louisiana songwriting legend Bobby Charles in collaboration with swamp rock icon Dr. John.
The projects are significantly different; Charles wrote many songs that are indelible musical mile markers ("See You Later Alligator," by Bill Haley and the Comets, "Walking to New Orleans" by Fats Domino, and "(I Don't Know Why) But I Do" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry, among them), but Jennings' rarified strata of country superstardom was sealed by charting 96 singles with 16 number one hits, and 54 charting albums with 11 taking the top slot.
As performers, Charles is a cult artist while Jennings is a revered legend and an architect of outlaw country, country music's most enduring sub-genre, The first step was sifting through Jennings' daunting catalog, a task that McNally approached with passionate deliberation.
"I've listened to Waylon's catalog as much as anybody's catalog that I've really dug into," she says. "I sort of had two audiences in mind when I was picking songs, aside from the ones I liked and wanted to sing, selfishly. First, Waylon is truly beloved. People tattoo him on their bodies. He's loved on a psychic and spiritual level. You get a sort of high from Waylon, and I wanted to give that to people who really know him."
"On the other hand, I loved the way he walked through life and his outlook. I have a 12-year-old daughter, and I wanted to repackage Waylon so he stood a chance with a younger audience, so they could get past some of how he was always branded and packaged. His language is so direct and really from another time, but it's so universal and true that I wanted little girls to hear it and like it and internalize it, so it didn't feel scary and off-limits. I picked songs that I thought walked that line."
McNally was aware of the enormity of her goal, in terms of reimagining songs from one of country's greatest artists, but she didn't necessarily recognize the importance of her role as a woman interpreting Jennings' very masculine catalog. She didn't intend to shine a feminine light on the material, but its context became apparent the first day of recording.
"When I stood at the mic for the first session, it hit me like a load of bricks, like 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute! I've got to make this happen!' It suddenly got very real," says McNally.
"It passed pretty quickly because these songs sing themselves, if you sing them with that kind of mindfulness. When you strip away the personality and just look at the words on paper, Waylon's songs are direct and square. I approached this project like Dolly Parton rather than Waylon Jennings. Dolly always hit everything on the nail head, with the big blonde hair, the boobs and cute as a button, but she was as outlaw as they come. Outlaw transcends everything else, and these songs are so beautifully poignant that once I started singing them, I didn't worry about it anymore."
Women singing Jennings' songs has been done... the 2015 tribute, "Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings," featured appearances by Alison Krauss, Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack, but McNally's full album treatment is a first. As far as McNally's song selections, Jennings' widow, Jessi Colter, who accompanies McNally on "Out Among the Stars," noted McNally's singular accomplishment with "The Waylon Sessions."
"Jessi said to me that she'd never heard a woman sing any of this stuff, she wouldn't have done it, and she didn't know who could," says McNally. "And she thought Waylon would have been tickled that a woman had done it."
Another interesting component of "The Waylon Sessions" is the male vocalists that McNally chose as guests. Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and Lukas Nelson are fairly well known for their collaborative skills with women, but McNally insists that wasn't a consideration when she sought their participation.
"I hadn't thought about that, but maybe I'm friends with all of them because they do," says McNally. "I picked them specifically because I wanted there to be a separation, and they have the right timbre in their voices. Like the Billy Joe Shaver songs; who would you get to sing those? Buddy Miller was the only person in my mind. If it's not Billy Joe Shaver standing next to me, I want it to be someone I trust just as much, and that's Buddy. Rodney is a really good friend; he had a lot to do with me moving to Nashville and, of course, he wrote 'Ain't Livin' Long Like This.'"
McNally's choice of Lukas Nelson reveals yet another layer of her intentions with "The Waylon Sessions" and how deeply she considered her tribute's philosophical structure.
"Part of picking Lukas was that Waylon always had a posse," says McNally. "He wasn't out there by himself with a guitar, he was out with a horde of hoodlums. I wanted to have fun and have some friends around because that was an important part of what Waylon did. And nobody says 'Waylon Jennings' without thinking of Willie Nelson and vice versa. And I didn't just do songs Waylon wrote, I did songs that were Waylon-adjacent. 'You Show Me Yours and I'll Show You Mine' is a Kris Kristofferson song that Willie had a hit with, same as 'Help Me Make It Through the Night.' I wanted some of that Nelson bravado; when Lukas turns that on, he does it as good as anybody."
When McNally finished the lightning four-day recording schedule for "The Waylon Sessions," she had a little better understanding of her hero as an artist, an entertainer and a man after inhabiting his songs.
"Waylon enjoyed a real kind of freedom," she notes. "Maybe not later in life, when his body was catching up to him and his health was failing. But in his prime, he felt real freedom and that's what everyone wants. The world was his oyster, and not everybody gets to appreciate what that feels like. When one of Waylon's songs comes on the radio, you always feel a little danger, in a really good way, in a way you might not have to spend the night in jail for."
As to the universality of Waylon Jennings' appeal even now, nearly 20 years after his death, Shannon McNally might understand that best of all. "He was a cowboy and an Indian."