Album Review – Shannon McNally’s “The Waylon Sessions”

It’s only fair to relegate tribute albums and other offerings of previously-released songs to the 2nd tier of consideration with the crush of original releases every week giveths, let alone every month or year. Who’s got time? Tribute albums cobbling together well-intentioned but often hit-or-miss performances from a gaggle of artists too guilt-ridden to tell whomever was compiling it “no” rarely produces positive results aside from a song or two.

That’s not how you should regard Shannon McNally’s deep dive into the catalog of Waylon Jennings though. It is a tribute album. It does include all previously-released songs from the Waylon catalog. But instead of trying to be cute and turn in re-imagined interpretations of songs whose original versions already nestle snugly in the brain folds of country fans, or trying to do Waylon one better on his own stuff, Shannon McNally simply put together a crack band, and did her best to capture the passion she has for the material in her own effort.

McNally didn’t mess with trying to dig for the more obscure selections or off peak-era works from Waylon to wow us with her depth of knowledge on the Hoss either. These songs lean heavily into the heart of the Waylon’s mid 70’s Outlaw era, only leaving some obvious ballads like “Luckenbach, TX” and “Amanda” on the sidelines, while most of the works that represent the Outlaw archetype of Waylon Jennings remain.

Yes, it’s the fact that a woman is singing these songs is what makes this exercise so interesting, and more than just an average tribute record. It’s the same songs, and except for in some rare instances (most notably on “Ramblin’ Man”), they’re sung from the same perspective. So without really rearranging much of anything aside a pronoun here or there, the songs take on an entirely different though paradoxically similar inverted meaning.

Along with the music remaining sharply in line with Waylon’s Outlaw style—though not strict reenactments, which would have been ill-advised—Shannon seems to be respectful of the era in her singing approach too. Instead of belting stuff out, her singing is a bit understated, like Sammi Smith might sing these song in the period they were penned and recorded. This puts the songs and the writing in the forefront, while you ponder these familiar songs in a different light due to the perspective of the singer.

There are some exceptions though, like when Shannon sings “Help Me Make It Through The Night” written by Kris Kristofferson, and originally recorded Sammi Smith before Waylon. She really takes this one to another level, extending the song by about a minute, which she does with a few of the songs as a way to add her signature stamp to them.

Let’s not just assume that everyone is a buff of the Waylon catalog either. One of the goals of any good tribute record is to hopefully tune some new folks into music they may not be aware of. Maybe the whole leather vest and cocaine thing has scared some off from giving Waylon their full consideration. Shannon McNally gives folks outside of the Outlaw country mindset an excuse to give ol’ Waylon and his songs a second consideration, perhaps especially those of the feminine persuasion, and without the burden of all the stereotyping.

And the fact that even here going on two decades after his death, the music of Waylon still slaps, you don’t really need an excuse to record a bunch of Waylon songs. It’s still a tribute record though. Who needs an excuse is the audience to spend their time with it. Shannon McNally gives them that excuse with The Waylon Sessions.

1 1/2 Guns Up

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NOTE: Jessi Colter, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, and Lukas Nelson are all guests on the album. The CD version includes the bonus tracks “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” and “Waltz Me To Heaven.”

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