TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Two women have recently released albums covering songs made famous by two men. The first is called "Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan." The other is "The Waylon Sessions" in which Shannon McNally sing songs associated with country singer Waylon Jennings. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that in very different ways. McNally and Hynde, the lead singer of The Pretenders, are finding new things in old songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE MINUS ZERO")
CHRISSIE HYNDE: (Singing) My love, she speaks like silence, without ideals or violence. She doesn't have to say she's faithful, yet she's true like ice, like fire.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: "Standing In The Doorway," subtitle "Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan," is a lockdown project, one of those rare gifts of art in the wake of the pandemic. Chrissie Hynde says she and Pretenders bandmate James Walbourne, separated at the height of COVID, recorded the songs by exchanging messages over their phones. And the collaborations were later mixed by producer Tchad Blake.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE SUMMERTIME")
HYNDE: (singing) I was in your presence for an hour or so. Or was it a day? I truly don't know. The sun never set where the trees hung low by that soft and shining sea. Did you respect me for what I did or what I didn't do or for keeping it hid? Did I lose my mind when I tried to get rid of everything you see? In the summertime, whoa, oh, in the summertime. In the summertime, when you were with me.
TUCKER: That's "In The Summertime" from Dylan's 1981 album "Shot Of Love." There doesn't seem to be any guiding theme or framework to Hynde's song choices, which tend toward lesser-known work. But there's no superfan obscurity or hipper-than-thou grandstanding. And there isn't a false note on this entire album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T FALL APART ON ME TONIGHT")
HYNDE: (Singing) Just a minute before you leave. Just a minute before you touch the door. What is it that you're trying to achieve? Do you think we could just talk about it some more? The streets are filled with vipers who've lost all ray of hope. It ain't even safe no more in the palace of the Pope. Don't fall apart on me tonight. I just don't think that I could handle it. Don't fall apart...
TUCKER: Hynde sings every song as though she's telling you about experiences she's had. The dry bitterness that can overwhelm some of these compositions when Dylan performs them ripens into a more lush atmosphere here. The deeply beautiful seven minutes Chrissie Hynde spends singing "Standing In The Doorway" seemed to tell the story of a woman's entire life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE DOORWAY")
HYNDE: (Singing) I'm walking through the summer nights. The jukebox playing low. Yesterday everything was going too fast. Today it's moving too slow. I got no place left to turn. I got nothing left to burn. Don't know if I saw you if I would kiss you or kill you. It probably matter to you anyhow. You left me standing in the doorway crying. I got nothing to go back to now.
TUCKER: Waylon Jennings' body of work would seem to be one of the least likely inspirations for a woman to seize upon. Jennings spent his career pursuing an outlaw romantic ideal that demonstrated little comprehension of female wants and desires. Yet Shannon McNally has recorded an album that rearranges the molecules of Jennings' music, turning his tales of cowboy machismo into the stark declarations of a woman taking control of her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS TIME")
SHANNON MCNALLY: (Singing) This time, if you want me to come back, it's up to you. But remember I won't allow the things you used to do. You're going to have to toe the mark and walk the line. This time will be the last time. This time...
TUCKER: That's Shannon McNally setting firm boundaries before she'll take back a lover who's treated her badly in the past. McNally isn't, strictly speaking, a country singer. She's also recorded an album covering the songs of the New Orleans pop writer Bobby Charles, and she resides at the arty end of the country neighborhood, sometimes working with that ultimate art country auteur Terry Allen and his Panhandle Military Band. Here's McNally doing "Black Rose," a Billy Joe Shaver song whose best recording until now was done by Jennings.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK ROSE")
MCNALLY: (Singing) Way down in Virginia among the tall grown sugar canes lived a simple man and a dominicker hen and a rose of a different name.
TUCKER: Like Chrissie Hynde, McNally doesn't take on the prickly persona of the man who first recorded these songs. They both used the structures the men built to create their own, in some cases far more complex, rich emotional spaces.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed "Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan" and Shannon McNally's album, "The Waylon Sessions." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the right has mobilized against the teaching of critical race theory - the study of systemic racism - leading to the ousting of school board members accused of supporting teaching it and the drafting of legislation to ban teaching it. My guest will be NBC reporter Tyler Kingkade, who has been investigating the people, money and strategy behind this new conservative movement. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.