Mac McAnally: Still humble after 40 years in the music business

Q&A with the 7-time CMA Award winner

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Despite a 40-year musical career that’s included penning four No. 1 Billboard country hits, winning seven Country Music Association Awards, an induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and a regular gig with one of the most successful touring acts in history, Mac McAnally still considers himself a “nobody.”

At this week’s 2015 CMA Awards, McAnally is nominated for musician of the year, a category he’s won for seven years running. His latest record, “AKA Nobody,” was released this year.

The 58-year-old artist has released 13 solo albums since 1977 and has written songs for A-list acts including Kenny Chesney, Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. and Jimmy Buffett; he’s been a full-time member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band for nearly 20 years.

We caught up with McAnally over the phone on Oct. 28 at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He talked about his career, still getting nervous in the recording studio, tricking his daughters into being backup singers and why he gives away all prospective hit songs he writes to other artists.

“If I write something that sounds like it may be a hit, I call one of my friends who already has a personal trainer,” McAnally laughed.

Q: Has it reached the point where you expect to get a CMA Award nomination every year?

Absolutely not. I expect someone to come out and tell me that there’s been a miscount and I’m going to have to return all seven. I don’t have it in me to brag about anything, but the fact that the same people that do what I do are who vote on this means that at least somebody thinks that there’s some merit in how I go about my business.

Q: How does it feel to have won the CMA's musician of the year award nearly as many times as Chet Atkins?

Chet is a legend and he’s a personal hero of mine. He was the guitar hero of my father and was the reason my dad put me into guitar lessons in the beginning. Chet took me under his wing a little bit when I first came to Nashville and if I had 100 of these things I wouldn’t consider myself in his league.

Q: Who was the first big artist you worked with?

My first big album I played on was a Hank Williams Jr. album. Hank was among the first of the country stuff that happened down in Muscle Shoals (Alabama) — it was primarily an R&B town. They called me because I was an acoustic guitar player and they didn’t have a dedicated acoustic player in Muscle Shoals. They asked me if I could drive to Birmingham and join the union and be back to Muscle Shoals by 10 a.m. the next day to play on Hank’s album. Birmingham is a couple hours away from Muscle Shoals and [the union office] didn’t open until 10 a.m. so I had to do all that in a hurry. It was an altogether stressful day. The guy in Birmingham was a stickler on the rules and he made me watch a whole 45-minute movie about going into the union before he’d let me sign my paper. So I was already going to be late to my first session. (Note: The sessions McAnally played on would appear on Williams’ 1977 album “One Night Stands.”)

Q: Did you get into any trouble for being late to that recording session?

I drove seriously illegally fast back to Muscle Shoals. I didn’t really realize that Muscle Shoals was as laid back a place as it is because I got there at about 1:30 p.m. and nobody else was there even though the recording session was scheduled to start at noon. We didn’t actually work until after dark that night and I got calmed down a little bit by then.

Q: When was the last time you got nervous in a recording studio?

It happens all the time. I believe nerves are a source of energy. I’m not afraid of nerves I just try to channel them, you know, you try to ride them like a bronco in a rodeo. You don’t want the bronco to be an easy ride because that’s sort of self-defeating — you want him to buck you a little bit. Any recording scenario generates some nerves because it’s somebody’s dreams you’re trying to make come true. If you can channel the energy that comes from nerves you can do things you couldn’t do without them. Obviously if you don’t get ahold of them the dominoes could fall in a bad way.

Q: Who is an artist from history you would have loved to record a song with?

I’ve got lots. But because I grew up in church, I consider David to be the original singer-songwriter and I think I could at least play along with him to the point where he wouldn’t kill me with a slingshot. (Laughs) I got to play with Ray Charles, but I would have loved to have played with Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald.

Q: Which current artists would you love to work with someday?

I think Jason Isbell may be the finest lyricist that’s working in music right now. I met him when he was really young, but I’ve never got to work with him — but I’m a big supporter. Also Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes. They’re doing really different stuff than I do, but she’s just such a force as a vocalist that I think people may still be talking about her voice a couple generations from now.

Q: Which one of your songs do you think people will people still be talking about in 100 years?

I’ve never thought of that before. A song like “Old Flame” — which was a big country hit that I was able to be a part of writing — I love that song, but I think that song would have been written eventually if we hadn’t written it. Somebody else would have written it. But there are a couple of my songs that I don’t think would have existed if it weren’t for me. There’s a song I wrote called “Socrates” that’s almost like a William Faulkner short story. There won’t ever be a million people that know that song but that song wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me because I’m the only one that’s going to write it. So that makes me feel a little more certain that I have a reason to be here. That song has legs, it could be talked about that far down the road. When I go shake hands with people, the song they mention to me most is [Shenandoah’s] “Two Dozen Roses.”

Q: How does working with Kenny Chesney compare to working with Jimmy Buffett?

They’re both remarkably driven to do well and they both probably think more about their live shows than anything. They really consider their fan bases in putting on their shows. Kenny and I have the small-town thing in common more than Jimmy and I. Jimmy always tells me he came from the ‘fun part of Mississippi,’ while I came from the buckle of the Bible Belt. (Laughs) I’d say the primary difference between them is that Jimmy always planned to see the world, he’s got an inquisitive mind; Kenny and I grew up more similar with church, football and family — that sort of thing. Kenny arrived at the beach after probably dreaming about it in a small town but Jimmy grew up close to it and can’t stay away from the beach for too long. But they are quite similar in a lot of ways.

Q: If we took a look at your iPod, which artists would we see you’ve been listening to lately?

I’ve been revisiting some of my vinyl favorites lately. I’ve been listening to some Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and some Beatles. I’ve been listening to Chris Stapleton’s new record and Jason Isbell’s last couple records.

Q: How did you come up with the title of your new record, “AKA Nobody?”

It’s kind of multi-layered. Part of it was just growing up on a farm and being taught that it’s not a good character trait to call attention to yourself; part of it is how I go about my business. When I start writing a song, I don’t want to be a guy who wrote a hit. I want to start like I’m nobody and I’ve never done anything. ‘Nobody’ is just a way to remind myself of that mentality.

Q: Was there ever a time when you wanted to be a big star that people recognized?

I never had that. I used to say I wasn’t in line when they handed out ambition. I never had it in me to want to be the guy in the middle of the stage. I always wanted to be in the band but never wanted to be in the middle of the stage. But I love playing well enough that people are impressed with it — don’t get me wrong — and I’m more comfortable performing than I’ve ever been.

Q: What spurred you to write the song “With a Straight Face,” from your new album?

During my childhood, in a small town, a couple of my best friends were gay and they had to sort of tiptoe around obviously in small-town Mississippi. They loved our hometown and were as proud to be from there as I was but they had a much harder life than I did, just because of the way they happened to hit the ground. [That song] was my way of looking back and wondering if I treated them as well as I could have treated them. What was Mayberry to me wasn’t to them. The people I still love from my hometown that were some of the most compassionate, warm-hearted people in the world withheld some of that compassion from these friends of mine. I’m not intelligent enough to speak as an expert on anything but I do have a heart, especially for anyone that is oppressed for any reason. The birthing of that song took a while. In my mind, if somebody like an Adele — who’s one of my favorites — or a Taylor Swift, somebody with an audience, chose to record that song, it could do some good in the world.

Q: What inspired the exotic sound of your new song “Zanzibar?”

When Jimmy [Buffett] heard that one, he called me and said, ‘You were sober when you wrote that.’ (Laughs) He always says I’m the token Baptist in the Coral Reefer Band. That is a wacky song. Being a guitar player, I listened to Django [Reinhardt] — the gypsy jazz stuff — and I’m not that kind of player but I love that kind of music. Getting to travel the world some, riding on the coattails of Jimmy, these exotic places keep popping up on my passport. I just started running and made up that little song. It took me a while to be able to play and sing it at the same time. My daughters did the Andrews Sisters-style backup on that song even though they aren’t studio singers at all. I had to kind of trick them because they’re all bashful like their dad. I brought them into the studio one at a time and said, ‘Sing this note for me,’ and they’d do it, and I recorded all of it and put it all together and made the harmony parts. They didn’t realize they were singing together until it was all done.

Q: When do your best song ideas come to you?

On the front porch of my place in Sheffield, Alabama, overlooking the Tennessee River. When I’m sitting on the porch there, I can see further than I can anywhere else. It’s the center of my musical compass.

Mac McAnally's website: http://www.macmcanally.com/

Mac McAnally’s album “AKA Nobody” is available now from Mailboat Records. Click here to check it out at the iTunes store.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.

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