If Mac McAnally never sang or played another note of music, his place in music history is more than assured. And yet an almost inevitable momentum seems to be taking his career and carrying it to places it has never been. The fact that two of country music’s biggest stars have given McAnally an almost reverential nod speaks to just how much energy the celebrated songwriter, guitarist, vocalist and producer is developing as a recording artist.
The release of his new self-penned album Down By the River, his signing to a prominent Nashville label and a recent Number One single - as a writer and an artist - are all significant pieces of this unexpected new image. And even though Mac McAnally doesn’t really need these new colors on his already breathtaking career canvas, their seemingly unassailable emergence might indicate something else. Maybe, just maybe, the music needs him.
Case in point, McAnally’s recent signing to Show Dog Nashville, the young but immensely successful independent label owned and operated by Toby Keith. When a man with Keith’s musical and business acumen puts his chips down, it means something. “There’s nobody more respected, at least when it comes to musicians and people who really know this business, than Mac McAnally,” Keith said of bringing McAnally to the company. “Getting to be a part of whatever Mac wants to do is an honor for me, and for everyone at the label.”
Next at the podium, Kenny Chesney. The man who had already recorded McAnally’s “Back Where I Come From” asked for a little help when he decided to cut Mac’s “Down the Road.” Powered by vocals from both artists, the song reached the Number One spot in the spring of 2009 and was nominated in the ACM Vocal Event category.
“I am really happy about having a Number One with my very good friend, and frankly, one of my songwriting heroes,” Chesney said at the time. “[Mac has] given the world so much wonderful music. He wrote this song on a Christmas morning years ago, waiting for his kids to get up and it comes from such a wonderful place. To be able to hear him on the radio, well, that just kills me . . . .”
McAnally’s triumphant return to the airwaves gave him his first chart-topper as an artist and sixth as a songwriter. But his Show Dog debut album plants an even higher flag on the mountain of musical success. Because Down By the River almost demands to be regarded as the culminating work of a fully developed and self contained music maker. Writer, producer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and all around musical sage, Mac has seen and done it all, as the album attests.
“Blame It on New Orleans” draws on his Mississippi roots and Muscle Shoals musical foundation, and at the other end “Until Then” turns its face to the winds of the future. In between, McAnally offers the best of his vocal abilities (“On Account of You”), songwriting (“You First”), instrumental gifts (“Big Disappointment”) and production talents (“(Nothing Like a Sunny Day”). In sum, the album stands entirely on its own merits and, at the very same time, serves as the perfect capper to an incomparable career.
Music was the most obvious road for Lyman “Mac” McAnally to take from his Red Bay, Alabama, birthplace and Belmont, Mississippi, hometown. He was a guitar and piano prodigy who performed in clubs at thirteen, wrote his first song at fifteen and landed as a Muscle Shoals studio musician at 18. Mac signed his first record deal with Ariola at 20 and launched two singles to moderate success on the Billboard Hot 100. “It’s A Crazy World” peaked at Number 37 and “Minimum Love” topped out at Number 41.
His songwriting drew the attention of Jimmy Buffett and Hank Williams Jr., both of whom cut McAnally songs. Alabama took his “Old Flame” to Number One in 1981. The song cemented his status as a hit maker, a reputation that has never waned. Reba McEntire, T.G. Sheppard, David Allan Coe, Shenandoah, Ricky Van Shelton, Charley Pride, Randy Travis and Steve Wariner are just some of the artists who cut Mac’s songs over the next 20 years.
In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, McAnally became an in-demand producer, along the way working with Ricky Skaggs, Restless Heart, Chris LeDoux and Little Feat, among others. He produced the band Sawyer Brown through their biggest successes and penned their signature hits including “The Cafe on The Corner”, “The Boys and Me” and “Thank God for You”.
Meanwhile, Mac’s skills as a musician continued to bring calls that carried him into the studio. Over the course of his career he’s built an enviable registry of credits that includes Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Jr., Amy Grant, Jimmy Buffett, Travis Tritt, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dolly Parton and many more. And his guitar and vocal skills weren’t confined to the studio as he joined Buffett’s touring Coral Reefer band, an association that continues to this day. McAnally has also produced several of Buffett’s albums and written many of his songs.
And even in the midst of creating a prodigious body of behind-the-scenes work, McAnally continued to make his own music. All told, he has recorded ten albums, all for major labels. In fact, he was the first artist signed to David Geffen’s legendary rock label Geffen Records.
His accomplishments are now beginning to be fully recognized. In 2007, McAnally was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The following year, the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame followed suit, while the Country Music Association named him Musician of the Year. And, Mac continues to own and operate his own recording studio in Muscle Shoals.
So the question remains: Why? Why now? Why is his biggest success and notoriety as an artist happening after he’s already achieved so much? McAnally is more than confirmed as one of the most accomplished and revered creative forces in the music business. He has nothing left to prove. Maybe this time, however, the music business has something to prove to Mac McAnally. As he sings on Down By the River, “You appreciate the real stuff if you hang around long enough.”