Songwriter/Producer Shane McAnally Speaks His Truth

Mineral Wells, Texas, native Shane McAnally migrated to Nashville to become a recording artist, but Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 hit “Last Call” confirmed his niche was songwriting. In July, he celebrated his 45th No. 1 song. In 2017, the McAnally-Sam Hunt co-write, “Body Like a Back Road,” spent a record 34 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. McAnally, 45, also runs his own publishing house, SMACKSongs, and is co-president (with Jason Owen) of Sony-revived label Monument Records. In 2019, he became a producer/mentor on NBC’s songwriting competition show, Songland.

McAnally often competes against himself in award categories for his contributions to songs and albums recorded by Miranda Lambert, Midland, Sam Hunt, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Old Dominion and others. He’s collected three Grammys — for co-producing Kacey Musgraves’ Best Country Album-winning debut, Same Trailer Different Park, and co-writing her Best Country Song winners “Merry Go ’Round” and “Space Cowboy” (the latter on 2019 Album of the Year Golden Hour). His many accolades also include two Academy of Country Music Songwriter of the Year titles. But even McAnally can’t create with just anyone — which is why writer Lynne Margolis received a polite “nope” when she proposed trying to pen a tune with him for this story. She understood why after McAnally sent a Zoom writing session video, then explained the importance of chemistry. In a wide-ranging interview (condensed here), McAnally also discussed “the radio game,” finding his tribe and the unnamed Broadway musical he and Brandy Clark are co-writing.

American Songwriter: Besides “Last Call,” what other songs are special for you? 

Shane McAnally: The song that changed everything for me is “Somewhere with You,” my first No. 1. That really set my songwriting career on fire, because it’s very hard to get on a Kenny Chesney record. That put a lot of eyes and ears on me. Of course, “Merry Go ’Round” — that song was inspired by something my mother said, and went on to be my first Grammy. I love when I hear a song of mine on the radio and I go right back to where that idea sparked or what happened in the room. I always love the newest song, too.

I listen to the radio when I’m in the car. For a workout or walking, I usually have a playlist. We are talking about two different worlds now. What connects in the streaming world and what works as a radio song are not always the same thing.

AS: What are the distinctions?

SM: The streaming world seems to be a very clear indicator of what people want to hear — the actual listener — because they are choosing it. You also have the data of how fast they skip it. Radio is still dictated by program directors and tastemakers. It’s surprising how many hit songs are on country radio that have no impact in the streaming world. Look, it’s a traditional genre of music, and it’s a nostalgic, sentimental group. I’m one of them. Shit, I want to hold a record. 

AS: (SMACKSongs/Monument artist) Teddy Robb’s songs about trucks and drinkin’, a lot of people regard that as lowest-common-denominator country — which is fine, but as a publisher, a label person, a songwriter, a gay man …

SM: How does that fit into what I normally do? Great question. I have wanted to break new ground; a lot of times that means living in that nostalgic … world and trying hard to say it differently than it’s been said. I got into the label business because I would work on these records and curate, with artists, a sound, a group of songs — really dig in the dirt with them, and then turn the record over to someone at a label who looked at us like we were aliens. I didn’t feel like I was ever getting the benefit of the doubt. Like, when does someone say, “I don’t get this, but his track record is pretty proven”? That wasn’t happening, even through all of the hits. I had these big artists I wanted to work with and take to bigger labels and have them blow it up, and I would always get this pushback: “Well, it’s too artistic … it won’t work on radio.” 

So my thought, when the label opportunity came along, was, “I can now sign these artists who don’t have a place.” But to run a label, you have to make money to keep the lights on and pay the staff. I started to understand why label people would push back on these projects — not because they didn’t love them; because they didn’t know what to do with them. When I heard Teddy, my thought was, “This voice sounds like it’s already on the radio.” He’s somebody who connects live and has mass appeal. I hope that doesn’t sound like, “I had to sign someone like Teddy Robb to pay the bills.” He’s an incredible artist. I also got to work with him at a very early stage in his recording career. I love seeing that process through his eyes; I remember what that felt like.

AS: With Songland, you’re also guiding people who haven’t hit yet. That must feel rejuvenating, too. 

SM: Absolutely. I went through that; I came here to do what they’re doing. I just wasn’t cut out for that. For one, I was in the closet. (And) it was a different time. But in the great story of “all things happen for a reason,” I did a very exhausting radio tour, met every radio person … so now I have a label and I’m going, “Remember that time I sat on the back of a trailer singing to eight people in your parking lot? You can make it up to me now.”

Nashville is consumed with the radio game, so as these artists come in, I say, “Look, if you want to make music and make records, that’s one thing. If you’re dying to be on the radio, there are going to be some things that feel like compromises.” My hat’s off to people who have the balls for that, because 90 percent of the time, you’re hearing “no” and “we don’t have room.” But if it’s worth a shot, I would like to be there with somebody and say, “Hey, you know what? It just might happen.” Watching it happen for my friends who I came up with, like Sam Hunt and Old Dominion, has been one of the most gratifying things because they know it’s not a given. If you’re thinking that radio is the only way you’re gonna be happy, chances are you’re gonna be disappointed.

AS: There’s still an issue with women getting airplay.

SM: We’ve been talking about this for a decade, and it doesn’t seem like the conversation has changed things much. I can’t believe it’s taking this long and that it’s still such a big deal for a female to have a No. 1 record. I would like to see that balance out, and I’m working with a lot of females. Maybe it’s because I’m gay, maybe it’s because I just loved female singers growin’ up. But I still love telling stories with them, because the girls will go all the way. The guys are still staying on the surface; the girls will be like, “This is where it hurts and this is how it hurts.” The vulnerability, for men, is lagging.

AS: When you write with somebody, are you just trying to write the best song you can or trying to write a hit? 

SM: I want to write the song that’s in the room that day. I’m probably more aware of the commercial aspect now than I want to admit, but … nothing is more intriguing or exciting to me than when an artist comes in and they have gone through something personally, good or bad, that they have this desire to say. I really love the opportunity to go in with an artist who says, “I can’t leave the room without saying this.” 

AS: You’ve said you wanted SMACKSongs to have a Brill Building vibe; lots of interaction. Do you put people together or let them find each other?

SM: You try to lead people to their tribe and see if they work. Above all else — above any hit or luck or songs I had written for 13, 14 years beforehand — when I met Brandy Clark, when I met Josh Osborne and my tribe started to fill out, that was the most important turn in my career. It was about people who were the same and have been through the same thing as you and knew what it meant. That’s why it’s so hard when you meet a young new songwriter or someone who hasn’t had the same level of exposure. They think, “If I could write a song with you, I know everything would change for me.” But the truth is, we’re not of the same tribe because we did not come up the same way. I can’t completely relate to where you’re at. And that, to me, is really important. It wouldn’t mean that I would never have a write with that person. (But) we think the magic is in finding that successful person and going, “I want to show you what I can do.” That’s not how it works.

I was in the Universal building the day I wrote the Lee Ann Womack song with Erin Enderlin. She had a publishing deal; I didn’t. But she hadn’t had any hits. We were both sort of at the same place. Luke Laird was in the hallway, and he was on a run; he had just had all these hits. I was like, “I know if I just go up and talk to him, I could, through my banter and jokes, make him want to write with me.” So I met him in the kitchen and said something, then said, “Oh, we should write; I’d love to write.” And he was like, “Yeah, maybe so.” I mean, very kind. I realized years later that if I had gone in to write with him, I would have blown it because I wasn’t ready. 

My biggest fear comes down to when someone has a write with me, that they just take on so much of the idea of what it would be like. … Ashley McBryde (and I) wrote (her hit) “One Night Standards” the first day we had ever written together. (Co-writer) Nicolette Hayford, who’s a good friend of Ashley’s and has written a lot of songs with her, told me afterward that they did a shot in the parking lot, they were so nervous. They just wanted to be great. And I said, “Guess what? That’s why I don’t want to do it. Because I want to be great, too. I want to live up to whatever ideal you have, and surpass it.” I find that really hard to do with someone who has put me on such a pedestal. The pressure that a new writer might feel in the room with me, I feel it worse, because you’ve got some idea that I’m going to do … a magic trick. If I’m writing with someone from my tribe, I’m not worried about that. They already know what I am.

AS: But Songland contestants come with expectations; they’re hoping to win or at least have that writing session with you or another mentor.

SM: It scares the shit out of me. I go into every single situation on there flying by the seat of my pants, praying to God that I pull one more rabbit out of a hat. 

AS: Tell me how the Broadway show developed.

SM: Brandy Clark had put out 12 Stories, and the songs on it sort of wrote like a musical, and we had joked that it would be fun to write (one). Gaylord (Entertainment Co., now Ryman Hospitality Properties Inc.) at the time was looking to do a theater version of the (comedy-variety) show Hee Haw. We went in and said, “This is why we’d like to do it; we both grew up loving Hee Haw and watching that with our grandparents.” We spent the next three years writing a show based loosely on Hee Haw.

As (it developed), we found out that Hee Haw did not mean anything to the Broadway community. (But) we had fallen in love with the idea of a country-music musical, with songs like we were already writing, like “Mama’s Broken Heart” or “Follow Your Arrow.” So we reworked it … and ended up (presenting) it at the Dallas Theater (Center). Ultimately, we realized that in trying to take the Hee Haw out, we had just Band-Aided up a lot, and it didn’t feel cohesive. But we loved the idea of writing this musical based on music that Brandy and I worked on, and we loved the book writer we were working with, Robert Horn.

This was about four years ago. The show went dormant, and our deal with Gaylord lapsed. Then a friend who had produced Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, asked me, “Whatever happened with that show?” I said, “We’re certainly into looking at it again.” Then what happened was just kismet, like God intervened. Robert Horn, who had never had a hit on Broadway, wrote the book of (the musical) Tootsie, and won the Tony. That put all this new energy around what his next show would be. He calls us and (says), “This show still means the world to me. Let’s rewrite it, but get it right.” And Mike Bosner, the producer, was interested. Then Jack O’Brien, one of the most revered Broadway directors of all time, had wanted to do our show six years ago, and it didn’t work out. He still wanted to do it. So we’ve been back in full mode, and we’re just champing at the bit. It has been the most amazing work I’ve ever done, as far as the process. 

AS: You’ve said you like to remind young songwriters it’s supposed to be fun. What else would you tell them?

SM: It’s hard when someone plays me a song and it sounds so right in every aspect, but you know that it didn’t happen that way because it works too well. I always encourage people to write the way it happened. If something is too personal to share — I don’t think most songwriters think that there’s anything you can’t share — but if something doesn’t work, then you can tweak it. But it’s just the truth. Even if it’s just a few words … that comes through. Say it in a song the way you say it in a conversation.

AS: Sing it like you’d speak it.

SM: Yeah.

Photo Credit: Ford Fairchild

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