Songwriter Spotlight: Shane McAnally Tells Stories Behind the Hits

Inside a Nashville star's second act and the hits he's penned for Kenny Chesney and Kacey Musgraves

Songwriter Shane McAnally has written hits for Kacey Musgraves (pictured here) Kenny Chesney and Sam Hunt. Credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images

When he was a kid, after school Shane McAnally used to wander around the parking lot outside the clothing store his mother and grandmother owned and entertain himself by making up songs. "I must've looked like a little weirdo," says the Texas native with a laugh, thinking back on his 9-year-old self, happily composing among the cars.

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That little weirdo was on to something, however. McAnally grew up to be a Grammy, CMA and ACM award-winning songwriter who has had a hand in writing dozens of hit songs for artists like Miranda Lambert ("Mama's Broken Heart"), Kenny Chesney ("American Kids," "Somewhere With You," "Come Over"), the Band Perry ("Better Dig Two"), Sam Hunt ("Leave the Night On"), Lady Antebellum ("Downtown") and Kacey Musgraves ("Follow Your Arrow," "Merry Go Round").

Although his family was not musical, McAnally says, "I weirdly, innately understood how to do a verse, how to do a chorus." He even recalls one of the songs he wrote, a play on words called "Holly Would." "It was about a girl named Holly who 'would,' like 'Holly would make you crazy, Holly would make you cry.' The fact that I knew to do that, at 12 years old, I just feel like I was made to do this."

But McAnally didn't realize being a songwriter was a job, and as someone who admittedly enjoys being the center of attention, he pursued a career as an artist. He played clubs every weekend from the age of 12, appeared on Star Search at 14 singing Dan Hill's very adult "Sometimes When We Touch" ("Again, what was I doing? Why was I so serious? I did not win," he quips) and moving to Branson, Missouri, for a time at 15.

He landed in Nashville at 19 and tenaciously knocked on doors until he got a record deal, releasing his debut album in 2000 to the resounding sound of crickets. After a six-year stint in Hollywood, McAnally returned to Music City, this time as a songwriter, scoring the 2008 Lee Ann Womack cut "Last Call," and establishing his name in town in a new way. "When Kenny cut 'Somewhere With You,' I felt like somebody kicked the door down and then everything I was doing seemed to make sense," he says. Six years, and many hits, later he was crowned ACM Songwriter of the Year.

McAnally himself can scarcely believe his second-act luck. "I was songwriter who had a record deal that failed and who left town and came back," he says. "To me that seemed like a bigger mountain to climb than if I had just showed up when I was 33 and started brand new, because I had all this baggage of 'Oh, we've heard him, we know him, we've seen him.' It was a complete reinvention of what I was."

That luck extends from his professional life to his personal life where he has amassed a strong group of friends in the Nashville songwriting community including Josh Osborne, Musgraves, Hunt and Brandy Clark — with whom he is composing the music for an adaptation of Hee Haw.

"This sounds so cheesy but, I swear, sometimes I think, how did all of these songwriters end up being people that I would want to be related to?" McAnally says. "Thank God they all do the same thing so that we crossed paths. But it's much more than writing songs together, we're a family."

Rolling Stone Country asked the 10-time chart topper to tell the stories behind some of his most notable hits.

"American Kids," Kenny Chesney (Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, McAnally)
"Rodney and Luke and I sat down and they are the two biggest songwriters in town, and I thought if we can't write a hit in this room, I just don't know," says McAnally of his co-writers who have dozens of Number One hits between them. "None of us had a hook or anything to go on. We sat there for two hours listening to grooves and I came across a page of titles way down in my notes and I started reading them off all together: 'Trailer Park, Truck Stop, Map Dots.' The guys had similar things and we all started digging through our notes for titles that went with that and that is why it feels like snapshots, because there wasn't a linear idea. It was more about feeling like you were watching a slide show."

McAnally says he sent the demo to Chesney in an e-mail but didn't hear back. In the interim, Little Big Town began working up the song. "I was in St. John with Kenny writing 'Wild Child' and on the plane home, he said, 'I feel like we have a lot of good songs, but we don't have a first single.' And he was looking through his e-mails and he was like, 'Oh, here's a song that you sent me a while back that I never listened to.'" McAnally says his heart sank. "He didn't get to the first chorus, he pulled his headphones off and said, 'This is the song, it's going to be the single, this is the song.'" McAnally nervously went to Little Big Town and, he says, "They were very gracious and said you have to let him have it."

"Leave the Night On," Sam Hunt (Hunt, McAnally and Josh Osborne)
"It was a hook that Sam told me on the phone one day," he says of his most recent Number One. "I was like, you wrote a song called 'Leave the Night On Without Me'? I can't believe you would offer that hook to somebody else. I was being funny but I was mad," he admits. "He said, 'No, no I haven't written it; I just have an idea.' And I was like, 'Oh my God, thank you because I think that's the best lyric I've ever heard.' So we got with Josh Osborne and that was just a typical writing day. We were hashing it out and trying to find the phrasing and it went through some different phases, but that song is pretty close to the way it was written the day we wrote it."

"Merry Go Round," Kacey Musgraves (McAnally, Musgraves, Osborne)
"We were doing a writing trip in Texas for Kacey's first album and Josh and I went out early. My family lives close to where we were going and we were there for July 4th at my mom's house," McAnally says. "Her neighbor had a bunch of cars in the driveway that were blocking the way. And Josh asked my mom, 'What are all those cars next door?' And my mom said, 'I don’t know, Josh, they're selling Mary Kay or Mary Jane or something.' We were in the car trying to come up with every 'Mary' metaphor possible. But when we told Kacey we thought it was going to be a funny song she heard it differently and said, 'It feels like to me you're just talking about the routine of these small towns and how Mary represents everybody.' And that was where that song started."