In the liner notes on Shannon McNally’s new record, the singer confessed that she’s had a long fascination with Waylon Jennings‘ music. She wrote, “Just the name ‘Waylon’ makes me sit up in my chair and look around like I might see an apparition or a buffalo standing in the living room…. I have always loved his defiantly existential but immediately accessible common man’s music and how it boogies.” That’s an odd way to describe the man and his music, but her reverence is clear.
While McNally had performed and recorded a few of Jennings’ songs in the past, she said she felt intimidated by his immense talent, which prevented her from covering his work more often. However, she jumped right in when the opportunity arose for her to make an album of nothing but Jennings’ tunes. Waylon had a long recording career that dated back to the 1950s and extended until the 21st century with 45 studio albums and almost 100 singles, including 16 number one hits. Choosing what songs to cover must have been a difficult task. She did include some killer versions of his best-known tracks, leading off with a churning take on “I’ve Always Been Crazy”, but this is not a greatest hits collection. Most of Hoss’s most famous songs like “Good Hearted Woman”, “You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, and “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” did not make the cut.
McNally noted that one obstacle was how distinctly male Waylon’s songs are. Many of his biggest hits concern topics overtly from a masculine point of view. She offers her renditions of some of them such as “I’m a Ramblin’ Man”, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”, and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”. McNally explained that she “felt particularly up to the task of an honest and affectionate feminine reinterpretation of said Outlaw standards. I identify with every word and sentiment in these songs. Their universality speaks through me and to me–they’re magic.” Jennings’ versions of the three aforementioned songs are successful, but he did not write them. McNally essentially redoes songs that were originally redone by Waylon the first time. Her contribution as a woman doing men’s songs adds another layer of meaning and deepens the insights into male / female relations in country music.
Waylon was a singer and a songwriter, but only three of the 13 songs here are his own compositions. McNally’s takes on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose”, Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (which also features Crowell on vocals) seem to owe as much to the originals (if not more) than Jennings’ versions. It would have made more sense for her to do more of Jennings’ compositions.
McNally’s accompanied by a crack band that includes Kenny Vaughan on acoustic and electric guitar; Fred Newell on pedal steel and dobro; Chris Scruggs on bass and acoustic guitar; Derek Mixon on drums, and Bukka Allen on Wurlitzer and keyboards. Other special guests include Waylon’s widow Jesse Colter, Lukas Nelson, and Buddy Miller. They do a credible job of providing McNally with a solid instrumental foundation for her take on Jennings’ legacy. She brings a sassy attitude to the material, especially on songs such as “Out Among the Stars”, “You Show Me Yours”, and “I’ll Show You Mine”, which would do Hoss proud. McNally’s love for Jennings’ music comes out loud and clear.