Trust, according to Shane McAnally, is not just an essential component but a downright necessity when forming a healthy relationship between a songwriter and artist. In that way, “writing songs with someone is more intimate than dating,” the Grammy-winning songwriter-producer contends with a laugh. “It’s not always the first date that gets you there. It sometimes takes many dates. Sometimes you hit it right off and sometimes it takes a while to know whether or not you want to make little babies with these people.” McAnally laughs at the metaphor, but he speaks from a well of experience: with more than 35 Number One singles to his name, and having worked with seemingly every A-lister in country music, McAnally is one of the most accomplished songwriters in Nashville and someone with an earned perspective on what it takes for a songwriter and artist to truly click.
It goes a long way in explaining why the 43-year-old Texas native felt compelled to launch Songville, his new radio show on SiriusXM’s the Volume channel 106, which debuts on April 18th at 7:00 pm ET / 4:00 pm PT. Over 10 episodes, McAnally engages in intimate, heartfelt conversations with some of his most well-known collaborators and friends, including Kacey Musgraves, Thomas Rhett and Kelly Clarkson.
McAnally says in conceiving the show, its conversations aim to directly mirror the starting point for most of his writing sessions. “A lot of times there are days or hours where when we go into a write or work with an artist and we spend the first hour at least just catching up on what they’re doing, on what they’ve been working on,” he explains. To that end, “I thought it would be so interesting if people could hear that.”
Prior to his Songville‘s launch, McAnally spoke candidly to Rolling Stone and peeled back the curtain on his partnerships with some of Nashville’s hottest talent.
Kacey and I wanted to get married on our first date [laughs]. We met at night to write, which is not something I ever do. I had already written that day, but a mutual friend said I needed to meet her. So we met up and wrote two songs the first night we hung out; one of the songs was “Fine,” which ultimately ended up making her Pageant Material record. Kacey is very clear in her intention but we do a really certain thing together. To date, we always need a third person because the two of us always have a hard time finishing songs together. She just inspires me so much. We just want to go and go and go; we need organization. So whether that’s Brandy Clark or Luke Laird or Josh Osborne – all three of those are people we’ve written a lot of songs with – we typically need someone to ground us. She’s the greatest example of a muse for me. It’s her vocals, her phrasing; it’s the way she sees the world. She just does everything the way I would imagine doing it if I were an artist. It’s just a dream. I’m in love with her.
Back before I was having hits and I was really struggling and trying to find my way, I lived in L.A. for a while. I used to do these shows there and she got her hands on an acoustic live CD of mine. There was a song I used to sing called “Wreckage” and she started to play it in her live shows. That was how she first acknowledged my songwriting. And then that led to us having a conversation of when we could work together. I would send her songs, but we didn’t work together for a long time because I was writing country and she was going more pop.
Years later, when she was living in Nashville and getting married, she wanted to write a song about that. So we did this song “Tie It Up.” It was a way to get started and see how we both worked in the studio. That led to us collaborating for her Christmas record. The funny thing with Kelly and I is that sometimes you have such a close personal relationship with people that you weirdly forget to write together. Kacey and I have that issue as well. With Kelly, we do all these things together; our nannies for our children are best friends [laughs]. So it’s usually like, “Let’s go out to dinner, let’s get the kids together,” rather than writing. I’ll talk to people that I work with and they’re like, “Oh, we’re writing for Kelly.” And I’ll be like “Huh? I was at her house last night for dinner. Maybe I should have maybe walked into the piano room and written a song!”
A lot of times you’re writing a song because it needs to be written. An example of that is with Miranda’s “Vice.” The day we wrote that song was the first time I had ever written with her and the first time [my frequent collaborator] Josh Osborne had ever met her. It was the day the news media outlets got wind of her divorce [from Blake Shelton]. It had been in process for some time but it hadn’t been public knowledge. We didn’t know until that morning. But the fact that she showed up the day that shit was literally hitting the fan and she was ready to just write herself out of these things, was just amazing. But that’s what songwriters do. That’s our therapy. That was just one of those days where you go, “This is the real shit! This is why we do it.” She was showing up to write a song on the day that every magazine has her face on it projecting what happened in her marriage.
Florida Georgia Line
When we were brainstorming whom I’d like to have on my radio show their name came up. I went, “I think there’s a story there.” I have been very fortunate in my career on the critical, credible side of things. FGL are arguably the most commercially successful act in not just country music but music in general. They are near the top. Still, it’s this snobbery that comes sometimes with country music where people go, “They’re too this or too that.” When you look at the records they’re making, and you look at songs like “H.O.L.Y.” and you look at “Meant to Be, these are classic solid pop songs. And not unlike a lot of songs through the years that country artists did going back to “Here You Come Again” by Dolly Parton and “9 to 5.” It’s just credible artists doing commercial music. What’s wrong with that? So I asked them the question, “Does [the lack of critical praise] bother you?” I just wanted to say, “Look, obviously you guys are on top of the world. But when you grow up watching country music through that lens that all of us did you want that acknowledgment, right?” I was curious how that landed with them. And I found out.
With Sam it’s all about the trust. He is definitely one of those artists that once it started to happen for him, everybody came out of the woodwork. And I mean everybody from every walk of music. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t try to get to Sam Hunt. But there’s something in the combination of [me, him and Josh Osborne] writing together that he really trusts. It’s one of those things where I feel more confident and empowered in a room with Sam Hunt than with anybody else. When I say a line or try a melody, he really listens. It’s a really unbelievable relationship. He always says, “What would you do?” And he really means it. He could write songs by himself, but he is determined to go down every road to find out what’s under every rock.
Every time you hear a song that Sam and Josh and I are a part of you can’t even begin to imagine the different versions of that song that exist. It’s been at times exhausting, but it’s the most exhilarating when it’s done because we know we covered every base. That’s not the normal way things happen. First of all, people don’t have the time to do that. And maybe that’s one of the reasons Sam doesn’t have a new record out yet. But he knows there’s not going to be a song on his record that is a throwaway or that doesn’t fit the narrative. I have friends that say, “Gosh, I wish I could write with Sam” or “Could you hook me up with Sam?” And it’s no way territorial – I would invite everyone because I think they would learn a lot in the process of waiting for something that’s great – but it just doesn’t work that way with him. You cannot just walk in a room with him. Because a lot of days with Sam are spent just talking. You have to be willing to do that.
That girl writes so many songs and comes up with so many ideas. It’s a totally different process than writing with Sam Hunt. We usually write two songs in a day. She has so much frenetic energy; she is just on fire. She comes up with great hooks. She knows what she can and can’t say. She just has so much fun with it. It’s exciting opening the door and seeing her sitting there for the day because I know no matter what, we are going to get a song done and probably two. It’s what makes this life so great – all these possibilities. From the way Sam does it to the way Kelsea does it, it couldn’t be more different. But the bottom line is it’s just such an exciting thing to leave a space with something that wasn’t there before.