If a musical shindig at the Old Fire Hall this Saturday puts you in mind of a New Orleans street party, Ryan McNally won’t be the least bit disappointed.
The event is intended to introduce Yukon audiences to the Whitehorse singer-songwriter’s newest CD, Steppin’ Down South. The bulk of the album consists of nine tunes McNally wrote during a month-long stint in New Orleans last year.
“People probably think with all the horns and stuff that it’s more of a trad jazz album, but there’s a lot of different sounds to it. It has a lot of jug band,” McNally says.
“I was listening to a lot of Gus Cannon and Memphis Jug Band at the time. I just really dig listening to a lot of the street band music, where it’s kind of less sophisticated. It’s less about the complexities of the music and more just about the groove, and everybody sitting in the pocket.”
The tenth cut on the CD is McNally’s treatment of the 1910 Shelton Brooks classic, “Some of These Days”, which became the theme song of Sophie Tucker (The Last of the Red Hot Mamas).
McNally hails from the small town of Rockburn, in the southwest corner of Québec, just across the line from New York State.
“You could throw a rock over the border from where I grew up,” he says.
He attributes his interest in jazz to a grandfather who was an avid jazz fan and pianist. Although his grandfather died long before McNally was born, he left a treasure trove of 78-rpm records in his barn.
“I started listening to that and my older brother’s and my dad’s old classic rock. And my mom was an antique dealer, so she always had these old cabinet record players that would actually play 78s,” he says.
After studying audio engineering for a year at Vanier College, McNally found himself at loose ends, since it wasn’t easy for someone with limited French to find work in Montréal. In 2007, a family friend was moving north and offered him a ride to Whitehorse.
“I moved here when I was 21, so I hadn’t really decided what I was going to be when I grew up,” he says.
“I have that attitude, I guess, of just hustling to get a job, like bag boy or anything like that. And I ended up getting every job that I applied for and every gig that I tried to get, and it just became pretty hard to leave.”
After doing a variety of jobs, including a technician stint at the Yukon Arts Centre, McNally found his musical sideline blossoming to the point he could pursue it full-time.
His first CD, a blues album called Down Home, came out in 2011. His newest CD actually had its official release in January, during a brief tour of Ontario and Quebec. It was later showcased at the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City.
He considers this weekend’s unveiling in Whitehorse the “homecoming launch” for the CD, which was recorded last fall in Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow Studio on the Alaska Highway south.
After making a few demos with traditional recording techniques, McNally decided to take the chance of recording live, with all the musicians together in studio.
“I just wasn’t happy with the energy that was happening, coming through the speaker. It didn’t sound like the band was together,” he explains.
“That was kind of a big decision, because that was the first time I’d done that, and you never know. You have to live with it if anything goes wrong, or do it over and over, but it actually went pretty quickly.
“We recorded it in three days and the mastering and everything was done in a couple of weeks. The Down Home album took just a bit over a year, so by the time it was released, the tunes were already about two and a half years old.”
The album’s personnel include Yukoners Patrick Hamilton on banjo, kick drum and supporting vocals and Kieran Poile on fiddle, as well as Christian Leclerc, from Montréal, on tuba and Los Angeles horn player Justin Rubenstein doubling on trumpet and trombone.
McNally handles guitar, as well as contributing a rich baritone that is occasionally reminiscent of Leon Redbone, especially on the cut called “Operator Blues”.
From the walking blues style of “Weeping Willow Blues” through more uptempo numbers such as “Ramblin’ Gal Blues”, the New Orleans flavour is unmistakeable.
“All this music is written for certain dance steps. I had that in mind when putting the tunes together. I really wanted it to just be easy to take a partner and to dance to,” McNally says.
The group will play all 10 cuts from the album during two shows on Saturday, April 2 at the Old Fire Hall. The first is 6:30 p.m. and the second starts at 8:45.