Exclusive: Shane McAnally Shares Path to Becoming a Hit Songwriter—“People Didn’t Know Who I Was Because I Didn’t Know Who I Was”

Shane McAnally has a specific analogy that reflects the course of his life as a songwriter. Admitting that he’s never been adept with geography, McAnally relies on GPS to get him to his destination—even if it takes him on an unexpected route. 

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“When you have the map, you put your destination in and I do not question it,” he begins. “If it takes me left where I think I’m supposed to go right, I still go left and I get to the place I’m going, even though it isn’t the way I thought. That has been something I think about whenever it feels like I’m going left and I’m supposed to go right. But the universe is clearly saying, ‘Go left and trust.’”

The Mineral Wells, Texas, native first identified as a songwriter at age 10. Writing what he calls parody songs, he would add new lyrics to familiar melodies. 

“It feels like you raise your hand and go, ‘I think I’m a songwriter,’” he tells American Songwriter sheepishly. “I’m not sure that I knew this would be my life. But I knew that music would be a part.” 

He picked up on song structure quickly and would write constantly throughout his childhood. He went into the studio at age 12 to record original music for the first time and spent his weekends traveling between Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas performing on localized versions of the Grand Ole Opry. But his life course aligned with his purpose during his freshman year at theUniversity of Texas at Austin, where he spent most of his time in his dorm room playing guitar and writing songs. For spring break, he and a group of friends piled into his grandmother’s minivan and drove to Nashville to try to score a slot at the esteemed singer/songwriter venue the Bluebird Cafe. 

McAnally recalls how they had seen the movie The Thing Called Love, starring Sandra Bullock, about a group of aspiring country singer/songwriters. Similar to the characters in the movie, McAnally and his friends happened to arrive at the Bluebird on the day when they were hosting an open mic night and put their names in a hat. Miraculously, McAnally’s name was drawn, and he got to perform an original song. 

“That was when it was like, ‘I’m never going back,’” he affirms. 

After moving to Nashville, McAnally signed a record deal with Curb Records in 1999 and released his self-titled debut album a year later. But he found it challenging to stay in one lane when it came to writing and recording songs—so much so that it interfered with his ability to connect with listeners. 

“I didn’t really have an identity, and I think that was a problem for me as an artist and why I didn’t have a bigger artist career,” he explains. “I didn’t really have a lot to tell at that point.” 

At the time, the 26-year-old was closeted and “scared to death” that people would find out he was gay. “People didn’t know who I was because I didn’t know who I was,” he observes. “I think the single most important thing about an artist breaking into the music business is their identity, and really letting everyone know around them, ‘This is who I am.’” 

McAnally started to find that elusive identity when he lost his record deal. That’s when he began to focus solely on songwriting. He moved to Los Angeles, and in between waiting tables, he built a following performing regularly at singer/songwriter bars like Hotel Cafe and the Cat Club. But a writing trip in Nashville brought him back to Music City for good. 

He soon found himself in the room with Erin Enderlin. The pair wrote Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 single “Last Call,” which earned a Grammy Award nomination and gave Womack her first Top 15 hit on the country charts since 2004. 

“That was when the light went on that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” McAnally recalls. “Hearing her voice sing this song was more gratifying to me than if I had recorded it. I think that started to tell me [that] not only do I like writing songs for other people and really hearing these incredible interpreters, but I really like working with females.” 

Not long after his success with Womack, McAnally met another woman who would be influential in his career as a songwriter. He was introduced to Kacey Musgraves through a mutual friend shortly after Musgraves had moved to Nashville from her native Golden, Texas. The night they met, McAnally and Musgraves wrote two songs, one of which being “Fine,” the beautiful ballad that closes Musgraves’ 2015 album, Pageant Material

“I think that it’s something bigger than us that is speaking through her, and she knows how to translate that,” McAnally says in praising Musgraves’ voice. “That’s what I’m the most drawn to. I really wanted to help her.” 

That kismet connection led to McAnally being a co-writer on all but three of the songs on Musgraves’ critically acclaimed 2013 debut album, Same Trailer Different Park. He also served as co-producer. The album not only established Musgraves as a worthy new voice in country music, but it also gave McAnally his first Grammy Awards for Best Country Album and Best Country Song (“Merry Go ‘Round”). He also served as co-writer and co-producer on her follow-up album, Pageant Material,and contributed to Musgraves’ Grammy-decorated Golden Hour, which shot her into mainstream stardom in 2018. He co-wrote “Space Cowboy,” which was named Best Country Song at the 2019 Grammys, and the touching piano ballad “Rainbow” that closes the record. 

McAnally feels a spiritual connection when writing songs. He notes how the craft puts him in something of a transcendent state.

“I’ve recently realized how big of a gift it is that I got to make a living doing the thing that I can lose space and time with,” he describes. “For a long time, not being able to make a living doing it was torture, because I knew I was supposed to be writing songs, but I didn’t know how I was supposed to do that and pay the bills.”

Since setting his sights fully on songwriting, McAnally has become one of the most revered and sought-after writers in Nashville. He has written songs for some of the most prominent names in country music, including Reba McEntire, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, and Sheryl Crow. He’s behind many of the modern landmark hits of the genre, from Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Chesney’s “Somewhere With You” to Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” and Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” 

When McAnally steps into a room to write, he goes in with the intention of not trying to find an artist’s voice but to help extract the truth that already exists within them. 

“I don’t know if someone else can find someone’s voice. I think I’m better at being a megaphone and letting them trust that what they know about themselves is true,” he explains of his process of creating a “safe space” for artists and writers to open up. “What I hope and have heard that I’m best at is giving people freedom to feel like they can say anything, and that we can find the good in it, even if it’s not exactly right. I think that voice, that truth, has to be there already. I can’t find that for someone.” 

McAnally has a gift for helping others share their truth, and that’s no doubt due to his own intense journey on the way to healthy self-identification. 

“I think that was one of the scariest things for me as I was coming out of the closet, was the fear that my truth or the specificity of my truth would not resonate, especially in the genre that I felt the most comfortable,” he continues. “What I found was that if I’m telling the truth, it is everyone else’s truth at the root of it. The breaking of a heart, the healing of the heart, the hoping of a heart, we’ve all had those experiences. 

“What connects the songwriter to the artist is that the artist hears themselves in the song. What’s funny is my coming out and starting to write my truth did the opposite of what I thought it would. I thought it would keep my songs from getting recorded, and it actually got them recorded.” 

McAnally is continuing to find new ways to tell the truth through song by teaming up with his longtime friend and fellow hit songwriter Brandy Clark to write the music and lyrics for the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical Shucked. Despite being masters of their craft, McAnally and Clark were met with an entirely new set of challenges when writing for Broadway. 

“We’ve always said the main challenge we had was that we had grown up in the school of, ‘Tell the whole story in three minutes,’” McAnally expresses. “Broadway isn’t supposed to tell but one tiny piece of the story. It was really hard to keep it interesting,” he says with a laugh. “We really could say anything in Shucked. We were given complete freedom.” 

That full creative freedom led to a score adored by fans and critics alike. Shucked was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 2023, with Alex Newell winning for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. It was also nominated for Best Musical Theater Album at the 2024 Grammy Awards, where McAnally was also up for Songwriter of the Year, Non-Classical. 

Though he’s already reached unimaginable heights in his career, McAnally continues to aim high with his future goals. He hints that he has “really cool” film and TV projects in the works, and hopes to expand the reach of his music, crediting Shucked for opening “my mind and my heart to possibility.” 

Keeping his mind and heart open is a consistent theme in McAnally’s career. It took seven years to get Shuckedto Broadway, and the songwriter notes that when he let go of the fear that it might not happen, that’s when the project finally came to life.

“I think it’s the theme of the universe,” McAnally proclaims of letting go of control. “I think that the attachment to things is what keeps us from them. When we’re able to go, ‘That’s my dream, I’m going to set it out to sea and I’m gonna go do something else that distracts me and makes me stop looking at it,’ that’s what’s happened to me over and over.” 

Trusting the path he’s on will lead him where he’s meant to be—it’s a lesson the prolific songwriter has learned to grow into. And the art of songwriting has helped him get there. 

“This happens with songs every day,” he says. “We will stare at a line forever, [and] that will not bring the line. What brings the line is going, ‘We’ll find it, now let’s move on.’ Inevitably, what happens is we’re trying to work on another piece of the song and that line reveals itself. That’s a great lesson for life.

“I think that’s a hard one to learn, and it’s taken me a very long time,” he continues. “I don’t always get it right, because I am attached to things happening the way I want them to happen. But they always do happen the way I want them to happen, it’s just that I gotta be okay if they don’t—and that’s when they do. When it comes to songwriting, I do feel like it’s limitless.”

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