On her latest record, Small Town Talk, songwriter Shannon McNally pays tribute to her friend and overlooked American songwriter, Bobby Charles. Charles, who passed away in 2010, was dubbed the "King of Swamp Pop" for penning seminal early rock-and-roll cuts such as "See You Later, Alligator" and "Walking to New Orleans," among many, many others.
To make that record, McNally enlisted the help of some heavy-hitting talent, including Dr. John, Derek Trucks, Luther Dickinson, Vince Gill and Will Sexton. When she plays the Skinny Pancake in Burlington this Thursday, February 6, she won't have that cast of all-stars behind her. But she'll still have a pretty crack band to help her flesh out Charles' tunes.
McNally will be backed by her old friend Brett Hughes and his Honky Tonk Tuesday band, the Honky Tonk Crowd, which includes Brett Lanier, Leon Campos, Pat Melvin and Sean Preece.
In advance of that of that show, Seven Days caught up with McNally by phone. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
SEVEN DAYS: Terrance Simien just gave you a shout-out during his acceptance speech at the Grammys. [Simien won the award for Best Regional Roots Album for his record Dockside Sessions.] What did you think about that?
SHANNON MCNALLY: I was thrilled. I spent a long time in south Louisiana, and that was a great record to sing on. And I was really thrilled he won. Because a couple of years ago they condensed the Grammy categories and Cajun/Zydeco lost its own category. They created one category called regional roots. And the records that were in that category were all the Native American, all the brass-band stuff, all the Zydeco, stuff that's super regional. So he was really winning across the board for what is baseline Americana. So to get to sing on that, it was just great. You know you're doing all right when Cajuns give you a shout-out. ... If nothing else, by the end of the day you can go, "Well, I don't suck."
SD: Words to live by. Hey, speaking of not sucking, let's talk about Small Town Talk. So why do a tribute to Bobby Charles?
SM: Bobby was a buddy of mine, and again, another Cajun, and really a vital character in American music. He penned a lot of really important early rock-and-roll songs, like "See You Later, Alligator" and "Walking to New Orleans." And literally hundreds of others. He was "the King of Swamp Pop." He was a precursor to Elvis and the unofficial sixth member of the Band. He was a really important figure who doesn't really get a lot of attention because he was something of a recluse and a crank.
I connected with him when I did the Geronimo record at Dockside. I cut [Charles' song] "Tennessee Blues." He heard it and approved and we became really good friends, which is pretty rare. Then at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2007, they asked me to sit in for him at a tribute they were doing, because he had terrible stage fright and the chances of him actually showing up were slim. So Marcia Ball, Dr. John, Sonny Landreth, Tommy McLain and I did a nice set for Bobby.
Now, I had met Dr. John a couple of other times, but I had never crossed into his radar. And I had run the idea [for a tribute album] past Bobby before. I told him I'd love to cut that [self-titled] record he did with the Band up in Woodstock. And Bobby thought it was a great idea. So then I approached Dr. John after the set and he said it was a great idea, too. He said, "We'll do it at Dockside, we'll get Bobby and we'll use my band, the Lower 911 Band." And was like, "Fuck, yeah. Let's do it."
SD: You didn't stick just to the songs from Bobby Charles, though, right?
SM: No, we didn't. Because some of them are a little too stag for me. It was a little bit more than just changing a pronoun, you know? Not all songs are songs a woman would sing. Some of them are just from a male perspective.
SD: Bobby had input on the record before he passed away. What kind of things did he add?
SM: He would make vocal comments, but not too much. He had worked with Mac [Dr. John] for over 50 years. So a lot of stuff that was just autopilot, stuff that didn't need to be said. But he hung out in the studio a lot with us with his, uh, mood enhancers…
SD: Mood enhancers?
SM: He smoked a lot of weed. Like, bags of weed every day. But, yeah, he made some comments on vocals, and every now and then would make slight lyric adjustments.
SD: I'm told you have some great stories about Dr. John. Can you tell me one?
SM: Well, everything about working with Dr. John is great. He's an old pirate. And I mean that in the most literal way. He's never had much of a high regard for the law. Though as he got older, I suppose he became less of a criminal, because that happens. But it's almot too hard to remember any specific stories, because there isn't a person in rock and roll that he didn't have a personal encounter with. That was just the nature of his musical prowess and his, uh, criminal aspirations.
SM: The thing that moved me the most … I grew up on PBS television, "Sesame Street" and the Muppets. And I don't know how it came up, but one day I said something about the Muppets. And Mac said, "Oh, yeah. I know that guy, Jim Henson. He used to hang out with us on Bourbon Street back in the day. And those puppets, he based the band on me."
Long story short is that he's Dr. Teeth. Jim Henson based Dr. Teeth on Dr. John. And the whole Muppets was based on Dr. John's band. But when they pitched the pilot to the network, they didn't want it to be just one band, they wanted a variety show. So Jim reworked it so that Dr. John's band was the house band.
Now when I heard that, I've always quoted Jim Henson as one of my biggest inspirations. They had amazing music on "The Muppet Show." Lena Horne, John Denver, Tiny Tim. And that's what my generation heard when we were kids. It was smart, it was funny, it was very musical and it was very principled. And it was done so that children could enjoy it, as could their parents. It was really special. So that's my biggest story from working with Dr. John, the realization that, without knowing it, my musical journey had come full circle.
Shannon McNally plays this Thursday, February 6, at the Skinny Pancake in Burlington with openers Kat Wright & Brett Hughes. 8 p.m. $10/12.