It was a cold mid-January Wednesday and singer/songwriter Mac McAnally was spending his day much like many people in the Deep South — trying to stay warm.
“Man, we are snowed in here in Nashville,” McAnally said in a phone interview with the Sun Herald. “I haven’t been out of the house in a few days, but I have a four-wheel drive, so I’m going to try and get out today.”
One would naturally assume that McAnally used his snow days wisely. There was probably some picking and playing and writing and arranging and singing. You don’t get to become one of the most acclaimed singer/songwriters in modern music by being lazy. And at 60, McAnally is still pursuing his dream.
“I can’t believe that I get to chase music every day,” he said. “I’m truly blessed.”
But if McAnally were to take a few days off or even longer, no one could blame him. In 2017, he released “Southbound,” an album of songs both old and new that he recorded with the University of Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and with members of the Coral Reefer Band. The album was recorded in Hattiesburg and at McAnally’s studio in Muscle Shoals. The symphony was conducted by USM orchestra and opera director Jay Dean.
Proceeds from the record are being split between the USM music program and Chef Robert St. John’s Extra Table, a food-based charity.
2017 also saw McAnally, an in-demand multi-instrumentalist, pick up his ninth CMA for Musician of The Year, which ties him with the late Chet Atkins. He co-produced “This Cowboy’s Hat” for Chase Rice and Ned LeDoux and appeared in a Toby Keith video. He’s also been performing as a member of Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer Band for several years.
From Belmont to Nashville
McAnally was born in Red Bay, Alabama, home of the world renowned Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, which is about 10 minutes away from Belmont, where he grew up.
“They didn’t have a hospital at the time in Belmont, so Red Bay was the closest town with a hospital,” he said. “Tremont native Tammy Wynette was born in the same hospital.”
Belmont is a small town in North Mississippi in Tishomingo County. It has a population of about 2,000 people. It’s about halfway between Tupelo and Muscle Shoals. It is the place where McAnally would find his passion for Mississippi, “chasing music” and a life he says is based on a mixture of divine intervention and coincidence.
Q: Tell me about growing up in Belmont. What was it that happened in your life that made you want to make a living as a musician?
A: Honestly, I didn’t know you could do it for a living. My mom was a gospel piano player. She played in church and for all-day singings and every wedding and funeral or get-together in town and as far as I know, she never charged anybody a nickel for it. It wasn’t that I really thought in terms of revenue for it, but they just always said from the time that I was born that I was going to be a musician. I think they maybe envisioned me being a music director in a church — that would have been their dream for me I’m guessing.
But it was all about music, that’s how we entertained ourselves. The neighbors would come over and we would play music and it was mostly gospel. It was just always going. The concept of doing it for a living crept in later. It turns out you can make a living doing what you love and that’s what I’ve been doing since I was 13 years old.
Q: My grandparents were Southern Baptist when I was growing up, so I’m very familiar with those hymns — “Blessed Assurance,” “I’ll Fly Away” — did those songs have an influence on you? I feel like they are something of a lost art form.
A: I still play them. I still get up and play “Blessed Assurance” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I got kicked out of the church one time because I worked up a finger-picking version of what a friend we have in Jesus. Now, my church in Belmont has drums and MIDI and tambourine and stage lights, stuff that would have been blasphemy back then.
I agree with you. That concept of music and growing up around it is still a big part of what I do. Eudora Welty said, “Every Southern writer has a Bible in them whether they know it or not.” And it’s true with me. In my song “Down The Road” with Kenny Chesney, I talk about being “washed in the blood and the water.” All of that stuff comes from that time I spent sitting next to my mom playing piano and hearing one sermon after another.
Q: How did you end up in Muscle Shoals?
A: It’s particularly blessed happenstance for me because Belmont is only about 40 minutes from Muscle Shoals. I was always interested in how records were put together, from the first time that I heard records. Well, they told me that they made records in Muscle Shoals.
I was, and still am, a bashful kid. I don’t think that I would have ever had the nerve to go to Nashville or certainly not New York and Los Angeles or Philly or even Memphis and try to break into the recording industry. But Muscle Shoals was 40 minutes away so you could go there and fail and be back home by supper time.
Q: Rick Hall recently passed away. Tell me about his influence on you and your career.
A: Rick was a good friend. I was just down at his memorial. Rick’s family were sharecroppers on my uncle’s farm. We have family buried at the same cemetery. Rick always treated me like family. I think of him and his boys and wife, Linda, like family. He was sort of the Phil Spector of Muscle Shoals. He was a maniacal genius. He was a madman but he always treated me with respect and he would put his hand on my shoulder and tell me what was the right thing to do and even when I disagreed with him, I still learned.
Q: One of my favorite songs you’ve written is “Old Flame” with Donny Lowery, which was a big hit for Alabama. I love the way you were able to turn the phrase in the chorus. Was that your first hit song?
A: It was my first big hit as a writer. I wrote the chorus coming back on a plane from Los Angeles. I hadn’t written a lot of what I would call straight country songs. Looking back on it right now, it’s has a gospel augmentation to it and I didn’t realize that at the time. I was writing clever lyrics at the time and I knew if I finished it by myself, I would screw it up — I’d end up making the “Old Flame” chorus about an arsonist or something. Donny Lowery was my best friend and he’s a great songwriter. I asked him to help me not mess that chorus.
We envisioned hearing it on the radio and we got to hear it on the radio. We had thought that maybe John Conlee would have picked it up. But it turned out way better than we could have envisioned it with the guys in Alabama doing it. They did a faithful recreation of our demo. It’s still a big highlight of my life, getting to hear that song on the radio.
How did you end up doing an album with the USM Symphony Orchestra? Q: It has a real Al DeLory/Glen Campbell AM radio vibe. Was that your vision with the orchestra?
A: It started with the Extra Table charity and I did a show with the orchestra. Robert St. John kind of orchestrated part of the fun. I hit it off with Jay Dean real well down there. Anybody that knows anything about me knows how proud I am to be from Mississippi. So the notion of a Mississippi charity and an orchestra that was that good that I didn’t even know about and the buzz of getting to sing my songs in the middle of an orchestra was appealing.
We set up a couple of shows and Jay said, “We should record one of these.” I just decided it would be a good thing to do because so much of my work is Mississippi-centric. I thought if we should do a record with that orchestra for the charity and give the money to them. Honestly, it wasn’t so much a record-making decision as it was something that made me feel good inside.
Q: Your last time on the Coast, you played what is considered to be a “legendary” show in Pascagoula by the people that were there. Do you remember that show?
A: Of course I do. It was crashed. Jimmy happened to be down there reconnecting roots with his “Buried Treasure” project that had just been released. He was talking to some of the people he grew up around when he first started writing songs, so he was in the mood of where he came from and I was where he came from playing a Mac show. He told me he wanted to come over and watch me play a couple of songs, but he was going to go to bed early. I think we left there about 1:30 or 2 in the morning.
He said he wanted to play “a couple of songs,” but he can’t help himself. We hung out after the show at Scranton’s and they fixed food for us. It was a legendary night. That’s the way a homecoming in Mississippi is supposed to be.
Q: You’re now tied with the late Chet Atkins, who was also named CMA Musician of The Year nine times. That’s a long way from watching mama play the piano and playing guitar at your daddy’s laundromat.
A: I never in a million years would have ever thought my life would end up like this. I never thought I’d get to meet Chet Atkins or any of the people I’ve met. I’ve gotten to play with Ray Charles and Paul McCartney and Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and George Jones and Merle Haggard, Billy Joel — I never would have guessed any of that.
But my favorite thing about it is that when I wake up every morning, it’s just like it was when I was 15. I get to chase music today. I get try to make it better today than it was yesterday. The prospect of getting to do my favorite thing and get better at it and to do it with people who kind of feel the same way I do, it’s just such a wonderful existence. And the fact that I get to keep the electricity on at the house and I don’t have to go mow yards, which is my only other skill set, I’m just so blessed. The awards are great and they’re a bonus, but I just love the mindset that I get to chase music around.