When Mac McAnally nabbed the trophy for Musician of the Year at the 49th CMA Awards Wednesday night, it was his eighth straight win.
In an interview prior to the show, the revered singer-songwriter, producer and guitarist with a penchant for self-deprecation didn’t rule out the possibility that name recognition alone might be working in his favor.
“I have a greater understanding of how mediocre Congressmen keep getting elected,” the Mississippi native says with a laugh of consistently being honored by his peers since 2008.
Although he jokes that he keeps telling people to vote for someone else — and had words of praise for all of his fellow nominees, whom he calls “my heroes” — he takes the honor very seriously. “I don’t consider myself the Musician of the Year. I’m the third best guitar player in my band and that’s not a joke. But the fact that the people that do what I do vote on that award, and some of them see some merit in how I go about my business, it means a whole lot to me.”
In the pressroom at the CMA awards, award in hand, an elated McAnally reiterated that sentiment.
“I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say I have to give the rest of them back,” he says, noting he would have to figure out where to put the latest trophy. “It’s one of the best problems I’ve ever run into. You won’t find a luckier guy in the building.”
Or a guy happier to do what he does. “My parents are both gone, but it would mean the world to them,” he says. “They wanted me to be a musician from the time I was born. The way they said it in Mississippi is, ‘He has the call to preach music.'”
And preach it he has to great success since starting his career at 13 playing around his childhood hometown, inspired by his Chet Atkins–loving parents.
While his is not a household name, McAnally’s work has undoubtedly touched millions of households throughout his multi-faceted career. He has contributed to dozens of albums over the years as a session musician, working with a laundry list of great artists including George Strait, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Linda Ronstadt and Billy Joel. He has worked as a producer with artists like Toby Keith, Martina McBride and Jimmy Buffett, with whom he also tours as part of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. And McAnally has also penned a clutch of Number One hits, like “Down the Road” by Kenny Chesney and Alabama’s “Old Flame.”
Given all of the demands on his time, it’s a minor miracle that McAnally has time to record albums of his own as a performing artist. But earlier this year he released the excellent new collection AKA Nobody, featuring co-writing contributions from friends like Buffett, Chesney, Zac Brown and this year’s CMAs big winner Chris Stapleton.
“I’ve been blessed in that there’s plenty to do,” says McAnally, who splits his time between session work in Nashville and his own studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
“I literally have the luxury of waiting until something moves me to write it and record it and put it out on my own. When I write some stuff that I want to say, that’s really the only reason for me to make a record. There’s not more than eight or 10 carloads of people that are waiting for the next Mac record,” he says with another chuckle. “This group of songs have sort of been tapping me on the shoulder, saying, ‘By the way, we’re here.’ They’ve really been ready to be recorded for awhile.”
Those tunes include the whimsical wordplay of the Forties jumpin’ jiver “Zanzibar,” the folksy ambler “A Little Bit Better” — co-written by Stapleton — and the gentle, redemptive Chesney co-write “Island Rain.” The album’s masterpiece, however, is “With a Straight Face,” a deeply empathetic ballad about the struggles faced by children growing up gay in intolerant households or communities.
Of the self-effacing album title McAnally says, “If it wasn’t self-defeating, I would call myself the king of self-deprecation.”
“Kenny Chesney has been a great ambassador of a couple of my best songs.”
“I was raised a farm kid in Mississippi and we were generally taught that it’s not a positive character trait to call attention to yourself. And I still kind of live by that. But I also live in the total irony that is show business, because show business almost demands that you call attention to yourself on a daily basis or you’re obsolete. And, somehow or other, I’ve had the privilege of existing inside this business since I was about 13. I’ve defied a lot of gravity and I’ve required maybe four or five Old Testament miracles to get to be alive in this business and have my electricity still turned on in my house.”
We chatted with McAnally about a few of his best-known songs and the stand-out track from AKA Nobody.
“Down the Road,” Kenny Chesney
“He’s a great friend and he’s been a great ambassador of a couple of my best songs,” says McAnally of the superstar. Chesney called him up one day and asked him to come in the studio the next day. When McAnally wondered what might be on the agenda, Chesney said, ‘We’re going to cut one of your songs and I don’t care which one.’ “That may be as nice of a compliment as a songwriter can get. We got there the next day and he said, ‘What do you want to sing? I know a bunch of your songs.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, I know a bunch of my songs too,'” he recalls. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been part of a Number One record as a singer. He was nice enough to allow me to ride up the charts with him.”
“Old Flame,” Alabama
“It was the first song that I wrote that was a hit pitching to somebody else,” says McAnally of this ballad about watching the heat spark between former lovers. “It came out of an oddball scenario because I had just signed a pop record deal with David Geffen and was coming home from Los Angeles. The last thing he said to me was, ‘I like what you do. I don’t want to tell you what to do. So you go do exactly whatever floats through your head.’ And on the way home from that meeting, I wrote this wild and crazy rock & roll chorus called ‘Hush Money,’ and I wrote the chorus of ‘Old Flame.’ They’re as different as anything could possibly be. I got a pop record deal and then I went straight into probably the most country song that I’ve ever written. And it made a lot of noise.”
“All These Years,” Sawyer Brown
“I’ll have to give Mark Miller credit for that one,” McAnally says of the band’s frontman, who fell in love with another of the songwriter’s dark-hued ballads of heartbreak when he heard it on a McAnally album. “As soon as my album came out, Mark asked if I was going to put it out as a single. And I said, ‘No, it’s just a little sort of dark cheating song. It’s powerful, I know, but it’s not a single. It’s just a string quartet and one gut string and one guy singing.’ And he goes, ‘No, you don’t get it. I am a regular guy and that hits me right in the forehead like a fist. Commercial just means regular guys want to hear it.’ I never thought in those terms. I just looked at it as a little acoustic guitar ballad. He was right and I’m grateful to have been wrong.”
“With a Straight Face,” from AKA Nobody
“Something like [this song], I can’t really take credit for. I am very grateful that I got to be the filter of where that came through,” says McAnally of the delicate and finely wrought ballad, which could serve as something of a national anthem for parents with gay children seeking acceptance. “Where I grew up in Mississippi I had some friends who were gay and that was a hard place to grow up. Even though Mississippi has some of the most wonderful, compassionate, good-hearted people in the world, still, a lot of times in society it ends up where you withhold that wonderful compassion from certain groups of people. And I watched my friends suffer that way and it always felt wrong and you look back and say, ‘What could I have done better?’ I’m certainly not qualified to be a spokesperson for any cause, I just wanted my friends — and anybody that suffers in any kind of way that’s an underdog — to know that I have compassion for them and root for them.” McAnally envisions the song having a wide reach. “If Adele or Beyoncé or Taylor Swift wants to sing that song, they can change the world with it. I can’t do that. All I can do is write it and float it up like a weather balloon. But somebody else can take it, run with it and make something special out of it.”