[3 June 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s never a bad time to celebrate the songs of Bobby Charles, but in this case Shannon McNally recorded Small Town Talk for what would have been Charles’s 75th birthday. McNally spoke with Charles about the project, and got his input and blessing before he passed away, and she gets help on the record from Dr. John as well as people like Derek Trucks and Vince Gill. All these songs penned by Charles are excellent, and the band behind McNally hits every note with sincere reverence. They make some nice obscure choices here, like “Cowboys and Indians”, but McNally and company are best when they slightly skew the familiar. McNally turns “Homemade Songs” into a piano-driven torch number, while “I Must Be In a Good Place Now” is the most expansive cut here, a huge and wide-open turn on the more solitary pastoral feel of Charles’s version. These moments feel fresh because they honor Charles while still injecting some personality from McNally and these players. They’re welcome turns because, while many of these songs are purposefully true to the original versions, they also feel constrained, even stiffened, by that burden. The songs speak for themselves, and so McNally and company can—see “Street People” or “Save Me Jesus”—play it a little too safe. So instead of a fresh look at Bobby Charles’s songs we get a nod to a personal hero, and with this kind of material it could have been much more.