“It’s like eating crab meat,” says Mac McAnally. “You want those last few bites, but you have to work for them.”
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Humorous in his metaphoric descriptions of writing, McAnally, whose nearly 50-year solo career has spanned writing in country, working as a session musician and longtime collaborator and guitarist for Jimmy Buffett, and his Coral Reefer Band, is always reflecting on his journey writing and performing, revealing different moments in song on Once in a Lifetime.
“When you’re young, the first thing to come out bursts out and doesn’t require a lot of coaxing or a lot of effort,” says McAnally. “It festers, whether it’s an angry young man or it’s something romantic, or whatever is important to you about the world, it just works it’s way out. Once you commit to the notion that you are an artist, a writer, or a creator, by the time you’re 30 or 35, those things that were welling up have probably come out by then, so you have to dig a little deeper.”
Starting out, McAnally says he never had much confidence to write, much less perform, but eventually found something he wanted to say. Growing up playing gospel and country, playing in bands by 13 and hitting the studio by 15, McAnally eventually released his self-titled debut in 1977. Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007, the Mississippi-bred artist, went on to cut songs with Kenny Chesney (“Back Where I Come From”), Alabama (“Old Flame”), Shenandoah (“Two Dozen Roses”), Sawyer Brown (“All These Years”), in addition to the 30 songs he’s written with Buffett throughout his career.
Once In a Lifetime is a snapshot of moments—old and new—of McAnally’s musical journey, his honestly translated memories in song, opening on childhood reminisces “Alive and in Between,” also inspired by Harrison Scott Key’s book “The World’s Largest Man.”
“That particular song, lyrically, puts me in a place,” says McAnally. “I started thinking about little stories from how I grew up and where I grew up. There’s something about that lick that’s been with me all my life that made it easier to go back to that place and see the way I saw the world, when I was 20 years old or 25 but look at it from a different vantage point since I have survived a few decades.”
Mixing a lifetime of songs, McAnally explores life’s uncertainties on the more uptempo “Almost All Good,” through the more Buffett-saturated “First Sign of Trouble” and “That’s Why They Call It Falling,” and the breezier island swoon of “Just Right,” originally written while Buffett was in Key West recording an album. Moving through the waves of a classic country ballad “Just Like it Matters” to the upbeat title track, composed with singer-songwriter Drake White through “Good Guys Win,” a track McAnally originally wrote for the 2006 movie Hoot, he offers a more bluegrass-fused “Brand New Broken Heart” and leaves something more nostalgic on closer “The Better Part of Living.”
More than 30 years since it was originally recorded by Jimmy Buffett, who also co-wrote the song in 1989, ”Changing Channels” is a song McAnally never considered recording until fans started making the request for his version.
Written while Buffett was working on his first book, Tales from Margaritaville, the track was recorded on his 17th album, Off to See the Lizard, and was based on one of the shorts stories in the book.
“That song is joyous to me, because we were sitting on this beautiful front porch down of this place he had in Thomasville, Georgia and he’s telling me about this short story,” says McAnally. “He was telling me about the lead character of the short story, Isabella, and he just said, ‘girl of 1,000 faces,’ and I said, ‘from a long line of basket cases,’ and the first two lines of that song were essentially a tennis volley back and forth between us, and fell together really easily from there.”
An advocate of McAnally’s since they first met, Buffett has been a great supporter throughout his career. “We’re both storytellers from Mississippi and early on he said ‘I’m gonna sing some of your songs, and I bet we’ll write songs together,’” remembers McAnally. “He was so supportive from the very beginning, and he still is, and he means what he says. If you took 100 percent stock in what everybody in our industry says you would be disappointed the majority of the time, but Jimmy said a bunch of nice things, and backed them up since 77 or 78, when we first met.”
McAnally adds, “I’m very appreciative of that, because I was born without a great deal of personal ambition. The fact that he’s been such an advocate for what I do, and the fact that he has enough of that personal ambition that I can draft off of him—in the NASCAR sense of drafting—that’s been it’s been a great thing for me. Hopefully, I’ve been some service to him along the way.”
Still admittedly self-deprecating, McAnally says he always saw himself as more of a “sideman” and not the person in the middle of the stage and admits he still has a lot to learn about making music. “To me, there would be a sadness in thinking that I didn’t need to get better,” he says. “I wouldn’t enjoy that feeling if I thought I’ve got everything I need. I still like to strive for what wakes me up in the morning.”
Never a fan of his voice, McAnally jokes that he’s not the biggest fan of his guitar playing either. “I do love music, and at this point in time, I have gotten comfortable in my own skin,” he says. “I’m not embarrassed to sing anymore, and when I say something at this point, I know it came out of me. I believe what I’m talking about, and I think there’s some merit to that.”
For him, music has always been the reward, separate from the outside noise of the industry, and he still enjoys collaborating with other artists. “Contributing is one of my favorite things on earth,” says McAnally. “There’s something about the process of sitting in a room full of five musicians. It’s one of the things I miss the most about this pandemic, because I’ve been sitting home playing everything myself, and I really missed that interaction between players that can have that conversation between instruments. It’s one of the most magical things in the world.”
He adds, “From an age standpoint, I’m as useless as any as a doorstop, but as a co-writer to somebody new, I can maybe help get the message across to a few more folks than it would have gotten through without me being there. I like the fact that I can still be of use.”
Recently reunited with Buffett for his acoustic-led Songs You Don’t Know By Heart in 2020, McAnally is constantly working on something new, in between live performances on YouTube, and recording at home, insisting there’s always more to be written.
“It’s one of the things that sets up separates us from the plants,” says McAnally. “I love the plants, and they do some things that I can’t do, too, but one of the things we can do is stir up a gumbo out of what language we have and what feelings we have. That’s a blessing in itself.”