In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Shane McAnally is a big advocate of finding a crew. When he arrived in Nashville as a struggling songwriter years ago, the Texas native banded together with several other writers, and he championed them through the music industry after his own fortunes began to improve. As he puts it: “My domino fell first of the group.”
McAnally — whose hits now include Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” and “Space Cowboy,” Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time,” Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me,” and Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” — has maintained that mentor mindset throughout his journey into one of country music’s most successful songwriters. In 2012, he launched publishing company Smack Songs with his husband Michael McAnally Baum; in 2017, he was named co-president of Sony imprint Monument Records and began looking after artists like Caitlyn Smith and Walker Hayes. More recently, as if his days weren’t full enough, he signed on to be a songwriting pro on NBC’s series Songland, working alongside fellow hitmakers Ester Dean and Ryan Tedder to nurture the next generation of writers.
The writer-turned-multimedia-exec spoke with Rolling Stone from the Gulf Coast of Florida, where he, his husband, and their two children have been quarantined since March. (But even now, he’s surrounded by potential collaborators: His beach neighbors happen to include half of Little Big Town, Thomas Rhett, and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard.)
In general, what’s the first thing you do every day?
First of all, I walk our new dog, because I seem to be the only one around here who wants to do that. [laughs]
I’m usually on calls pretty early regarding Monument. We have a roster of six, but we have four very active artists [Walker Hayes, Teddy Robb, Brandon Ratcliff, and Alex Hall] that are cutting and in the process of going to radio. I’m extremely involved in both the creative side and we just hired a promotion team so I’m in contact with those people every morning. It comes to them sending me songs, us working out what the singles are going to be, those kind of things. I guess I’m an A&R person at Monument, even though I’m the president.
And I’m working on a Broadway musical that I’ve been working on with Brandy Clark for over seven years. It’s just kicked into high gear in the last six months. We just got a big infusion of energy when our book writer won the Tony this year. His name’s Robert Horn and he wrote Tootsie. We work pretty much every day, and we’ll Zoom on changes that need to be made. It’s cast — the show is ready to go now and hasn’t been announced because they’re just waiting [for Broadway to reopen]. We see probably a spring opening now.
I also am writing. Sam Hunt is here this week and we’re working on music for hopefully his next project. That doesn’t feel that different than my Nashville schedule. And then, I just do family after that. So I pack it in and try to relax. But I’ve been trying to find a balance for a long time — it wasn’t just because of COVID. I struggle with taking on too much, but also struggle with the fear of missing something. And so I say yes to a lot of things. Luckily, I have a really great team of people at Smack that sort of follow me around and see what’s actually possible.
Your husband Michael handles operations of your publishing company, Smack Songs. How tough is it to keep work and home life separate, because of that?
I understand why people always caution about working with your spouse… when we come together, the last thing either of us wants to do is talk about is, well, me, I guess, because he’s working on my stuff all day. We have Tiffany Young and Robert Carlton who are now really running things. And he’s doing his best to step out of a lot of responsibility so that we can enjoy this part of it.
“I just liked the idea of a community. I have this fascination with the Brill Building. And was always sort of obsessed with the story of songwriters going in and out of each other’s rooms and hanging out in a common area.”
When you launched Smack in 2012, what did you want to accomplish?
There was no design around it. I didn’t have a publishing deal when this run started for me. It’s the goal of the songwriter to have a publishing deal. I was building relationships and also had this group of young songwriters that we sort of huddled together. What had happened was, my domino fell first of the group. I started to bring those people into some situations and opportunities that came to me first. I was sort of acting like a publisher.
Then my friend [Old Dominion member] Trevor Rosen’s publishing deal went away. I was like, “Why don’t we just make up a company and you’ll just write for me? We’re writing everything together anyway, and I’ll act as a publisher.” And then I had Robin Palmer, who had been a song plugger in Nashville for 30 years and gone out on a limb with me by herself. That’s when my husband came in — he had built a mortgage company in Atlanta and had a similar business model in mind — and said, “What if we just built a publishing company around Shane and leveraged what success he’s had to help other people?”
I don’t know that either of us knew exactly what would happen. I just liked the idea of a community. I have this fascination with the Brill Building. And was always sort of obsessed with the story of songwriters going in and out of each other’s rooms and hanging out in a common area. So my goal was a lot more aesthetic, like: What would this look like?
You had your first country Number One as a songwriter 10 years ago, and you’ve been a constant presence on the charts ever since. How do you maintain that edge?
It just took so long for me. My first Number One, I was 35. I started traveling and playing music on the weekends when I was 12. At 19, I moved to Nashville. And then you’re talking 16 years for Number One. Preparation meets opportunity. It was like, “OK, there’s a window. I’m about to jump through it.” Part of it is I really wrote a lot of songs. Part of it is a numbers game. I just kept beating the system. “Here’s another song. Here’s another song.” And I didn’t look back.
I don’t do that anymore. I feel like I’m working smarter. I know exactly what I’m walking into. And I’m also walking into situations where I have a lot of experience. Songland is not a drain for me. I mean, when we’re shooting the show, it can be a bit of a drain because the days can be 12 hours long. But the process is not a drain because I know what I’m doing. And that experience feels like it’s because of those years of writing, writing, writing.
You’ve also worked as a producer on projects from Kacey Musgraves to Midland and Sam Hunt to Old Dominion. How do you approach the producing role?
Kacey Musgraves and Luke Laird and I were doing demos together. And Kacey was just so grounded in who she was that when she went to get a record deal, she said, “These are going to be my producers.” That was exactly the way the Old Dominion thing happened, because I was just doing their demos.
Sometimes people, young people or newer writers, really do think that the secret is getting in the room with me. And I know that feeling because I used to be that way about Luke Laird or Craig Wiseman. I thought if I could write a song with them, I could have a hit. And the truth is — that’s just not how works. I’ve had hits with Luke Laird, but it wasn’t because I got to write with him when I had nothing going on. It was because later we found a natural kinship. I try to explain that to young writers, especially when they come to Smack: You’re going to have to find your own crew. It’s not gonna be “sign at Smack and then Shane is going to take me under his wing.” I don’t have any wings left! [laughs]
How do you keep up with new music?
I’m usually so late to the party, but I am around so many music people that my artist friends will say, “Have you heard this?” If something seems like it’s everywhere, I’ll check it out. I listen to the radio when I when I’m in the car. But I know that most of the things I listen to are things that I know and familiar with. And I also take it as a challenge when I hear something pop or country that I absolutely flip out over. I have to figure out how to get ahead of that. I have to do that or better.
And sometimes I just don’t want to know. My thought is, if I can’t be a part of it or get ahead of it, maybe I shouldn’t listen to it, if it’s that good. And eventually you do and, you go: “Oh, there’s no accident.” I’ve become so into Doja Cat and I’d heard so many people talking about her. Ester Dean was telling me all about her when I was on Songland. Now, of course, it’s like the Number One song in the world and here I am working out to it every day and I love it. And honestly, I love that song and I’m taking it to engineers and going, “I want to feel the way this song makes me feel.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It always feels like people that are successful that I’ve watched — that do it well — they just they don’t think about the results. They show up. I’m writing songs because I have to. I tried very hard to do other things. And I couldn’t get away from creating. So I just show up.
A lot of days, I think, how in the world will this thing that I’m so in love with, creatively, ever mean anything? And that part’s not up to me. So I just do what I do. It’s just showing up with an open heart and trying to do it in a way that it feels good. And having fun. That sounds so cliché. But I’m just now there! I told a songwriter who was real serious and real bogged down in it: “This has been said to me 100 times, but I’ve never said it to anybody else — this is supposed to be fun. Please remember that.”