Strongly influenced by the folk-blues in her parents' record collection as she was growing up on Long Island, McNally has taken her music way beyond that, to include soul-jazz and electric blues-rock. She began singing songs at home with her guitar-playing father and dug deep into the well of his record collection, listening to recordings by Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Nina Simone, the Band, Emmylou Harris, and PJ Harvey. She majored in anthropology in college and began her performing career there and at small coffeehouses around Long Island, and also spent time busking in Paris during her college years.
Executives at a small music publishing company called McNally's considerable talents as a rootsy singer/songwriter to the attention of executives at Capitol Records, which in turn led to her critically praised debut, Jukebox Sparrows, in 2002. On the album, she was accompanied by studio veterans including Jim Keltner, James Gadson, and Greg Leisz. The fact that her debut had major-label distribution, and promotional and marketing punch behind it, helped McNally make a bigger splash on the roots music scene than she likely would have with an independent label. In addition to 2002's Jukebox Sparrows on Capitol, McNally's releases during the 2000s included Geronimo for Backporch/EMI Records in 2005 and Coldwater (as Shannon McNally & Hot Sauce) in 2009. Fans seeking more of her 2000s output can also search for less easily available releases on major and independent labels, including Run for Cover, North American Ghost Music, and Ran on Pure Lightning, a duet album with Neal Casal.
After spending considerable time in her New York City apartment, McNally moved to New Orleans in 2005. Being a year-round resident of the South gave her more inspiration, and she continued writing songs and performing in a wide variety of settings with a wide range of performers, including the roots rock band Son Volt. She later moved to Mississippi. After taking a couple of years off for the birth of her first child, she returned to touring in 2009 with Dave Alvin (ex-Blasters) and the Guilty Women. McNally returned to the shelves with the release of the aforementioned Coldwater as well as Jazz Fest 2007 (documenting her triumphant performance at the New Orleans Jazz Fest that year), the latter of which was released in 2010.
In early 2011, McNally issued the stellar Western Ballad (on her Sacred Sumac imprint), which continued to reflect the influences of traditional folk, classic blues, blues-rock, and country. She followed the set with Small Town Talk (Songs of Bobby Charles) in tribute to the Louisiana songwriter. She enlisted assistance from Dr. John and the Lower 911, Derek Trucks, Luther Dickinson, and Vince Gill, among others. McNally issued that album under some duress. She was going through a divorce, raising her daughter, and nursing her terminally ill mother, who passed in 2015. McNally emerged in 2017 with Black Irish, her debut for Compass. The album was recorded in Nashville, but its distinctive sense of place lay 210 miles west, where Memphis meets Mississippi. It was produced by Rodney Crowell. The set's first single, "Banshee Moan," was issued in May, with the album appearing in June. ~ Richard J. Skelly