Her new album pays tribute to the Louisiana songwriting great.

cover art for "Small Town Talk'

In 2007, Bobby Charles was scheduled to play Jazz Fest. Anybody who knew the notoriously reclusive songwriting legend was taken aback by the booking because it seemed so improbable. He had pretty much retired from live performing years ago, and in 2004 he backed out of a scheduled Ponderosa Stomp appearance, citing health reasons. His live career had always been challenged, starting with his days as the only white artist on Chess Records package tours in the 1950s after he cut his version of "See You Later, Alligator."

"I find it hard to imagine him as an entertainer," Shannon McNally says. She was part of the band brought together to join Charles on the set, along with his long-time friend Dr. John and Sonny Landreth, who'd backed Charles on a number of his recordings. She was to sing "Tennessee Blues," a song from his 1972 Bobby Charles album, cut in Woodstock, New York with a band that included Dr. John, Amos Garrett, Bob Neuwirth, and members of The Band. McNally told him how much she admired the album, and that she wanted to recut it. He loved the idea. 

Charles didn't make it to the Jazz Fest show. A month before the gig, he admitted to me over lunch that between dental problems and back pain, he couldn't make the trip to New Orleans. He was at the rehearsals, but "we all kind of knew," McNally says. By showtime, her role had expanded significantly to sing a number of songs, and after the set, she asked Dr. John if he'd produce her album of Bobby Charles songs. He agreed, and they went in to Dockside Studios in December, where Charles was a regular visitor. "He came out every day and bossed us about," she says, laughing.

The two became buddies. They'd go to his regular hangout, Shucks in Abbeville, where "we'd have a bunch of martinis, smoke a bunch of weed, eat fried oysters and talk about rock 'n' roll," she says. "It was great! What's better than that?" The album, Small Town Talk, is out today. It isn't simply the Bobby Charles album anymore, though it does rely on material from 1972 on. McNally's performing songs from it at the Louisiana Music Factory today at 2 p.m., and tonight at the Rock 'n' Bowl as part of a night of Bobby Charles songs with Beth McKee (who has also covered Charles) and members of Lil' Band o' Gold (who organized a swamp pop-centric Charles tribute in 2010 at the House of Blues' Parish that included Elvis Costello).  

The choice makes sense for McNally as her own music has a strong counterculture vibe. Her Geronimo album was produced by then-Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, but more importantly, her songs similarly draw from classic sources to express personal thoughts with spiritual underpinnings on songs that are more complex than they seem. Throughout her career, she has connected to many of the artists from that era, and had occasions to think about what made them special. A lot of it had to do with the way they embodied the counterculture meeting the straight world, a thought written unequivocally into Charles' "Street People."   

Got a job at a nursery but they just didn't like what I grow
They called the man and ran me off and said don't come back no more
Hanging out with the street people they got it now
Hanging out with the street people drifting from town to town

McNally and Dr. John's Lower 911 capture the song's slightly stoned lope, and she sings it with the same blithe indifference to convention that Charles did. She resists the temptation to make it a 4/20 anthem or a freak rallying cry, instead letting his fight with straight society remain subtle. Bob Dylan examined the same relationship when he sang, "There's something going on here / but you don't know what it is / do you, Mr. Jones?" but intead of giving the thought vague menace, Charles wrote as if he were indifferent to Mr. Jones' existence.

"It's that James Dean thing; it's Elvis," she says. "These guys were 12 in the early '50s. They were greasers on this one level. They were the guys in the back of the class flipping the teacher the bird when she wasn't looking. These guys were very enlightened on one level, but criminals on another, and somehow one didn't negate the other."

In "Tennessee Blues," Charles' twist is in the subtext:

If I had my way
I'd leave here today and move in a hurry
I know I feel loose
I know I could lose 
These Tennessee Blues
Find me a spot on some mountain top
With lakes all around me
Vallies and streams birds in the trees

The song's a profound statement of longing for a beautiful, rural place where he can be free, implicitly from the city or town life that confines him. It's also literally true. He was in Woodstock because he was on the run from a pot bust in Nashville and was facing federal time in Tennessee. He was happy in Tennessee and wanted to be back there and in a lovely, secluded setting where he could do what he wanted including smoke dope without fear of arrest.

McNally hears a similarly personal statement in "Save Me Jesus," and it isn't anti-religious. "He's taking Jesus back from the bullshitters," she says, and when she sings the "save me Jesus" chorus, she sings it with the same personal spirituality he brought to the song. "His problem isn't with Jesus. It's with two-faced people who use him to awful ends. To me, those songs aren't simple. They're multi-layered, and they have a medicinal quality."

That counterculture mentality was very much of its moment, and talking about it makes McNally slightly uncomfortable, even as she's obviously fascinated by it. "In some ways, I feel voyeuristic even talking about it because that wasn't my experience," she says. "I wasn't there. I'm looking back on something having read autobiographies and random stories and stuff like that. 

"Sometimes I wonder if I'm just listening to the dope. They were doing massive amounts of drugs. These were not sober guys. I don't want to over-romanticize them because we might not have gotten their best work. They were so extremely talented. Imagine what they would have done if they weren't so high, puking their brains up between takes. Because they were junk sick, all of them. I don't know about Bobby, but the rest of them were for sure. But there's something that comes through. The high they were all chasing is in the music, and you can't help but chase it too."

In some cases, you hear the drugs because you've read the stories and know they're there. In other cases, it's audible. When Rhino Records released a three-disc version of Bobby Charles in 2011, one disc featured an "interview" as a label PR flack gets high with Charles and tries to get enough information out of him for a bio to accompany the album, and another includes outtakes, blues jams and leftover songs are played at stoner tempos and at stoner lengths.

"I don't think he had much of a social life at all outside of making records," McNally says. "He was very simple. He just liked writing songs. The songs were relentless. They came out of him one after another."

Like his lyrics, the songs are simple and complex at the same time. "Most of them are nine lines," McNally says. "Two or three verses. Maybe 12 lines in the whole song. When you look at them on paper, there's nothing. They take a kind of performer, and the band has to act together. Bobby's songs can get real boring real fast if the band isn't putting the hooks in the right places. The chords aren't hard; the voicings aren't hard. It's more of a mindset."

Small Town Talk sat on the shelf since December 2007, often untouched. Changes in the record industry were hard on legacy artists such as Dr. John and Bobby Charles, and it wasn't much kinder to artists influenced by them including McNally. "The industry didn't know what to do with it," she says. "The industry didn't know what to do with me. The record and I were in the same bag." In the meantime, she released two albums on her own, but she wanted a more assured fate for her album of Charles covers. "I didn't want to sacrifice it. I wasn't in a rush because it's not a record that will get old."

She thought the album was done, but when the possibility of releasing it became real, she started thinking about Small Town Talk  again and thought of a few songs that could use an additional harmony or two, and songs that would benefit from guitar solos. She brought in Derek Trucks, Will Sexton, Luther Dickinson, and Vince Gill to add a few final touches and hoped to include J.J. Cale, but he wasn't up to it at the time.

Releasing Small Town Talk is a cause for pride and celebration, but it has a bittersweet note. Charles heard the songs as they were recorded, but he passed away in 2010 at the age of 71, so he didn't live to see it released.

"I wish he was here because I know he'd be happy about it."

I interviewed Bobby Charles for OffBeat in 2007, and again in 2008 for Blurt. Here are those stories.