For two weeks in August 1977, Mac McAnally occupied a spot on the lower reaches of Billboard pop Top Forty with an insightful bit of Life 101 called “It’s a Crazy World.” Written when he was just 16, he was 19 when the song hit. As a country songwriter, he has penned hits for
His just-released LP Southbound is McAnally’s first-ever exploration of the songs in his extensive catalog, couched in an orchestral setting. An adventurous album brimming with heart, soul and wit, it was conducted by
Did you feel pretty confident early on that the concept of an orchestral record of your songs would actually work this well? Or did you have some doubts?
Well, there’s no aspect of me as a recording artist that is not pretty well-doubted! [Laughs] I’m a bashful guy, and I’m not the most self-confident by nature, but this batch of songs, particularly maybe in four or five cases, these were songs that all my life I’ve really wanted another shot at singing. Partially because I’m such a bashful guy, I’ve never been the most confident singer. I’m more of a background singer.
How did you land on the idea of supporting Extra Table in particular?
It’s a Mississippi-centric charity, and that’s where I come from. I have a few songs talking about how proud I am to be from there. And they’re on this record, for the most part. I am very proud to be from
The record also benefits the university’s music program. Why was that important for you?
Jay Dean has, for 30 years, been bringing not only the best players that he can find in Mississippi, but he’s been bringing players up from South America that came out of really abject poverty, that are really gifted musicians. He’s been sort of a pipeline for Brazilian and Chilean, quite a few South American musicians, over 300 now. So this orchestra that played on this is made up of students, and some faculty that are those people who have been through his program.
You also have some of your Coral Reefer Band comrades on the album. Where did you do the recording?
We went down to
Why do you think it is that
Spare time is our major export. [Laughs] There’s a lot of time to make stuff up in
Do you think the
It’s probably possible to make a case for seeing that either way. I see it in the way that I grew up. I love being of use to my friends here in town, who sometimes I’m able to help with a song, but I don’t ever want someone to cut one of my songs at the expense of somebody else. I just don’t see it as that kind of competition. I think if we all do it as good as we can do it, good things are going to happen to good songs. But I also know that you can look at what’s going on and say it’s certainly a smaller pie, getting sliced more times, if you want to look at it analytically, from a stat sheet. It’s a tougher time to start than it was when I started. So, honestly, I feel especially moved to try to pay it forward, to a generation of kids that are getting underway now. Because I was such a bashful kid, I could actually not start right now. I’d be dead in the water. I never would have had the nerve to come to Nashville and say, “Listen to me, I’m talented.” I didn’t even ever say that to my parents. I came through a little window a long time ago, that was probably the only window I could have ever gotten through.
What do you think is the greatest thing you’ve learned as a member of the Coral Reefer Band?
Well, it’s a fundamental thing, but Jimmy’s whole organization is just a giant rolling ball of goodwill. People come to see what he’s doing because they know they’re gonna enjoy it, and they know he’s gonna enjoy it. Jimmy turned 70 last Christmas, and you think about who’s touring at that age, and most people who are touring at that age are doing it because they have to do it, that’s the only way they can generate enough money. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re musicians. But Jimmy hasn’t needed any money for a long time. He loves playing music for people. He loves making people happy. I work hard to make my songs as good as I can. But he makes it so easy to appreciate how much it means to throw that goodwill from the stage to the crowd, and for them to throw it back to you. It’s an energy source. It doesn’t matter if it’s a surf bar or if it’s a baseball stadium or if it’s he and I at
One thing you can certainly hear in this record is Randy Newman and his influence on you. That must go back a long way for you?
No question about it. He was a hero of mine from the very beginning, from when I first heard his work. The particular time when I began making records in the late Seventies, we had the same agency and I was blessed to be Randy’s opening act for, oh, about a year, around the time he had “Short People.” The two of us were traveling on planes to different hotels. He was truly a hero of mine and he lived up to that status. He’s brilliant. He’s wickedly funny and there’s no better writer than I think he is. I would have been influenced just by listening to the records, let alone from getting to be around him and tour with him. I’m certain that more of that permeated what I do to a degree that my limited abilities can absorb because he’s much more thorough in music theory than I am. I hear stuff in my head that I have to go chase and figure out, and he hears stuff in his head that he understands as soon as he hears it. We’re quite different in that regard. But at least he gives me some things to aspire to.
A couple of the most fun songs on the record are “Blame It on
Those are both just a joy to play. The
Have you been to
I’ve never been. I’ve gotten to go to a lot of places that I mention rapid-fire in the bridge of the song, but I haven’t been to