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Mac McAnally: Keepin’ the Bills Paid

Mac McAnally builds on his amazingly successful career with “You First” . . . while trying his best to avoid the spotlight.

Mac McAnally’s legacy of great music has led to his recent induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he won last year’s CMA Musician of the Year for his guitar work. [He got two more nominations recently for the 2009 CMA awards]. He’s also recorded his own hits—“It’s a Crazy World” in 1977 when he was 20, “Minimum Love” in 1983 and 1990’s “Back Where I Come From”—and had 6 No. 1 hits as a songwriter, including his recent duet with Kenny Chesney on Mac’s “Down the Road,” a tune he originally recorded on his own Simple Life album in 1989.

Others’ hits with Mac’s songs include Alabama, with “Old Flame,” Kenny Chesney, with “Back Where I Come From,” Ricky Van Shelton, with “Crime of Passion,” and Sawyer Brown with “The Café on the Corner,” “The Boys and Me” and “Thank God for You,” to name a few.

Mac’s also got impressive credits as a producer and background vocalist. And is there a better day job anywhere than Mac’s—as a member of buddy Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer band?

In a recent exclusive chat with CW’s David Scarlett, Mac talked about his childhood, his family and why his passion for music doesn’t include a desire for superstardom. Mac’s one of the greats. Here’s a large chunk of the interview.

CW: I know you come from a dry county. How, as a young kid, did you get into bars to play music?
MM:  It honestly never really came up because, for some reason or another, I looked about 45 years old when I was 12. My beard came in full at about 13 ½. It sounds like exaggerating, but probably when I was 14 or 15, people in my band who were 19 were tryin’ to get me to buy liquor for ‘em. I looked older than I was.

I played in church up until I was about 13 and then beyond that, too. But starting at about 13, I did start playin’ in the state line honky-tonks up at the Tennessee line and some over in Tupelo, Mississippi. That was in Mississippi, but wet. My home county, Tishimingo County, Mississippi, is still dry.

CW: How much convincing did it take your folks to let you go play in those places when you were that young?
MM: My mom played in church and my dad had been to World War II in Japan, but had never been to a honky-tonk. Neither one of them probably had any knowledge, other than what they would have said at church that they were.

But they always thought that I was supposed to be a musician. This fellow came to our house when I was 13 and made a big pitch to have me play in his band at the state line of Tennessee. I thought they were gonna throw him out, but he kept talkin’ and he said, “I’m a good Christian man and I’m gonna look after your boy and I’ll drive him”—I couldn’t drive yet, he had to come pick me up every day and take me to Tennessee and bring me back every night after we finished at 2 o’clock in the morning to get ready to go to junior high school the next day! (big laugh). But he also said, “I’m gonna pay him to rehearse and I’m gonna pay him $250 a week,” which in 1970, that’s when I was 13, that was more money than my dad was takin’ home as a school teacher in Mississippi in the public schools.

So, somewhere in the guy’s presentation, whether it was the dollar amount or the sincerity in promisin’ my folks that he would look after me, I ended up that Saturday night (laughs) wearin’ a green leisure suit and playin’ at the state line at the Circle E club in Iron City, Tennessee.

CW: Any photos of that leisure suit?
MM: It’s odd that there are not. There are no photos. But I have a mental picture that you can’t close your eyes and not see.

CW: Did you know pretty much from 5 or 6 that music was what you were gonna do, one way or the other? Was it that clear, that early?

My feeling was that it was. But to be honest, it may have been something that grafted on from my family because they said, literally, as soon as I hit the ground and they brought me home, one of my grandmothers said, ‘He’s got the call to preach,’ which is a serious throw down statement down there in Mississippi. And the other grandmother said, ‘He’s got the call to preach music.’ And I’m really grateful that they threw that in. (laughs) I don’t know that I would’ve been as much of a preacher without the music. But they did decide that I was a musician from the get-go. So, as long as I remember, that was what was expected of me out of the family. That’s what they hoped for and that’s what I felt like was supposed to be right. And I can’t tell you if it’s environment or if it was really born into me or not. But my mom was a great player and the family didn’t have television until really late in the game. And that’s how my family entertained ourselves. My whole neighborhood, two or three nights a week, would come over to our house and bring hymnals and dulcimers and mandolins and saxophones or whatever instrument they had and make the joyful noise that the Bible talks about. We’d sit in there and sing gospel songs. I just remember the smell of coffee and cigarettes and stompin’ feet in the house. And it just seemed natural to sing and try to find the harmony part in with 25 other folks (chuckles).

CW: Were you equally proficient on guitar and piano back then?
Maybe in the beginning I was equally proficient, but I kinda rebelled against piano. My mom played by ear and she wanted me to read music. She sent me to lessons and I had a fine teacher and everything, but I kinda wanted to be outside in Mississippi. So the guitar was my way to get outside (chuckles). I traded the piano off for the guitar because I could take that to the lake and fish and play guitar at the same time. It didn’t take long for the guitar to pass the piano.

CW: When you were playin’ some of those early club dates at a young age, I assume you might have seen some things there that inspired some lyrical content that you wouldn’t have known about had you not been there. I’m thinking of the line in “Samuel Arisin’” about getting drunk and knocking somebody down…would you have written about that kind of stuff if you hadn’t had that every weekend experience?
MM: I’m certain that I would not have. Early on in church they talked about the honky-tonks like . . . wild people went there to go totally hog wild. And then my first experience with honky tonks was that they had been right! (chuckles) I saw people revvin’ up chainsaws and I saw knife fights and stuff that 13-year-olds don’t get to see very often. And I usually was afraid to get down off the stage. We’d take a break and I’d just sort of sit behind the piano and watch what was goin’ on (laughs). ‘Cause they were some rough place.

But, by the same token, a lot of the people from church were there! (laughs) You’re playin’ to the same crowd sometimes. I guess that’s how they knew that (about the honky tonks) (laughs). It’s just part of human nature. We all have the tame and the wild in our nature and the honky tonk gets to take the blame for some of it and the church gets to forgive you for some of it. We kinda make use of both things. I certainly enjoyed playing music in both places and I’ve had meaningful experiences in both places (laughs).

CW: Have you always appreciated how fortunate you were to have that knowledge that you had these talents and that you embraced them so early in life? I know a lot of people get to be 25 and 30 or even 40 and 45…and still haven’t found a passion…and don’t know what they want to do.
MM: I don’t know that I knew early on what a blessing that was, because it was the only feeling I’d ever known. I didn’t know that I was gonna make any money. When this guy came and said he was gonna pay me $250 a week to play piano when I was 13, that seemed absurd. I felt like I won the lottery every week. I couldn’t think of anything to do with that much money. I just gave it to my parents. We weren’t below the poverty line, but we were lower middle class Mississippi. I didn’t have to eat government cheese, but I knew where to get it! (laughs)

CW: What did your dad teach?
MM: He was a history/social studies teacher and he was the elementary principal when I was in elementary. And he was the assistant high school principal when I was in high school when I was in high school. So he followed me around pretty well. (chuckles)

CW: Did your mom work outside of the home?
Well, she was the piano player at church and played for weddings and funerals and that sort of thing. And there was a Wrangler pants factory there in Belmont and she worked there also. So they were always workin’ and there was always music goin’ on.

But I didn’t answer your question very well. As soon as I realized how rare it was to be attached to your passion, I counted that as one of my highest blessings. At this point in my life, I look back and it’s one of the best things about my life, that I’ve always known. I didn’t have to fish around for anything. It was either, ‘I’m gonna have to figure out some way to support the habit of bein’ eatin’ up with music, or music might figure out a way to be my job. One or the other. It wasn’t like it was gonna be something else besides music. I may have to support it some other way . . . but fortunately, since I was 13, I’ve kept the light bill paid with my passion.

CW: What did Toby say to you before you made this record? (Mac’s on Toby’s Show Dog Nashville label0
Well, I’m always writing and I always write whatever floats through my head. Even my normal records, and you said you’re familiar with ‘em, they are pretty much song driven. I don’t have some kind of personae that I’m trying to force through about me. It’s always tryin’ to make the music seem like it’s what it’s supposed to be. Consequently, I’m over 50 now, so there’s not a great sense of urgency about the next Mac record. I’ve always done ‘em about one every three or four years, whether I have to or not! (laughs) And usually, just because of the nature of our business, it’s for a different label. I’ve never made the one a year or one every 18 months that you’re supposed to make. So I’ve got  . . . as I say, I’ve got a full set of luggage and quite a few labels at this point. (chuckles) I’ve got the MCA hang-up bag, and the RCA . . . and David Geffen was a great benefactor and Tony Brown was as great benefactor and Jim Ed Norman was a great benefactor as far as . . . they’ve all allowed me to do what I do over the years.

But Toby and I are buddies for a few connections. For my whole career life, basically, we’ve shared the same manager. TK (Kimbrell) manages us both. TK and he heard a song that I was actually gonna pitch, that song was “You First.” And they said, “We know you like to pitch songs, but you need to sing this one.” Nobody said that to me in a while. I said it to myself about “Back Where I Come From.” I knew it would be a bigger hit if I pitched it to somebody else. But it was so much me and my family and my home town, I just felt like I needed to say it first. And then maybe somebody else would cut it down the road, which Chesney did, and I’m really grateful for that.

And “Down the Road,” same thing. Both of those songs, I kinda wanted to be the guy who sang them. And I hadn’t thought about a song in that way in a while, but I just made a little guitar vocal of “You First” and TK got it and played it for Toby and they said, ‘You need to sing this. And since, just by happenstance, you just had a hit out with Kenny . . . you should sing it now.’ (laughs) So attaching some sense of urgency to the cutting process, we went in and made a record in the middle of what was already kind of a full schedule for me this year. I probably wouldn’t have cut this year if they hadn’t pushed the button and talked me into it. I’m really glad they did, ‘cause I had a great time makin’ the record and doin’ it on a schedule that made me . . . this particular record, I just went in and sang all of these vocals in a day. I’ve never done that since the very beginning. But it sort of made me just go straight to what matters (chuckles). I’m not a big fan of my own voice, but I actually like what came from that process, just goin’ more like a live performance. If you’re singin’ live, you try to do what matters.

CW: Some of the really bluesy stuff sounds more raw . . . maybe because you pushed yourself.
MM: And I knew that “Bound to Get Down” and “On Account of You” were pretty much gonna blow out my voice when I sang ‘em . . . so I saved those till the end of the day (chuckles). (My voice) was goin’ but I think it lent some emotional quality because it was all I had . . . this is it. (chuckles)

If I’d just sung every day until every song was perfect, you wouldn’t have necessarily gotten that out of it. I actually maybe learned a little about myself as a producer doin’ that. Because it just made me be more efficient. “You First” we’d already recorded, but everything else was pretty much sung in a day.

CW: I saw a YouTube interview you’d done in France and you talked about how much you’d appreciated Jimmy Buffet’s support over the years because you’d never been a particularly big supporter of yourself . . . and that you’d always felt uncomfortable drawing attention to yourself. And I assume that comes from your upbringing.
MM: It is definitely that. That’s the farm boy.  It’s not considered a quality of character to call attention to yourself. I don’t want to say I’ve struggled with that all my life, ‘cause it’s not a struggle. That’s just my nature. But our business is not conducive to the hiding your light under a bushel that they talk about in the Bible (laughs).

CW: Has that worked against you in your career?
I am actually pretty devoid of the ambition that really drives a career beyond the nuances of our business. I never was driven to be the guy in the middle of the stage or to be a household name or anything. It’s always been pretty much about the music for me. I try to make it as good as I can make it. I always want to be better. I want to be a better guitar player, I try to get better. I want to be a better writer. But it’s not for the purpose of more people knowing my name or having a nicer car or bus payments or a personal trainer (laughs). So, historically, particularly from the point that I started havin’ kids, the songwriter aspect of things . . . the fact that I could be of use to my friends who have that ambition and who have the bus payment and the personal trainer, if I write a hit song and I give it to them. I get to stay home and watch my kids grow up in a way that almost no employed person I know gets to. I’ve probably seen more of my children than anybody with a job that I’m aware of (laughs). And that’s been a great aspect of my life.

The songs that I’ve written that are big hits have been of use to my friends who are driven to do that. That makes them happier and it makes me happier. So I’ve tried to figure out a way to navigate that lack of ambition (laughs) in a way that’s beneficial to the people I care about. So, for me, it’s been about perfect. I make music for its own sake. I don’t make music because I’ve got a deadline. And everything I write—like they use to talk about whole hog sausage—I get to use everything I do for some purpose. Some of it makes me feel better to ride around and listen to in the car. Some of it is of use to my friends who want to be a star. Some of it they turn into greeting cards or something. But it all has a use. And I get to play guitar on other people’s records and I get to sing and arrange backgrounds on other people’s records. And produce one ever once in a while, it’s just manifested itself really well for me personally.

The other thing about the spotlight, David, is too . . . the brighter it shines, the shorter time you have in it, normally. And this, in that it’s what people decided I was doin’ from the time I was in diapers . . . until whenever I end up in diapers again . . . I’m rootin’ for that to be a little bit down the road, as they say, (laughs). But when I put out “It’s a Crazy World” in 1977, if I had had a gigantic hit record . . . that was a hit record, but if I’d had a huge hit record and a big bright spotlight career, I would’ve been spoken of in past tense by the time I was 26 or 27. And I would’ve still been stuck carin’ about the same thing, passionate about the same thing—music—but I just would’ve have had such a way to make a livin’. As it is, I’ve been jokin’ here lately that my new ambition is to get a Best New Artist nomination and a social security check in the same year! (laughs)

Anybody who does what they love for a job, or anybody who does a job that allows ‘em to do what they love in their spare time, is a seriously lucky person. And I’ve been doin’ that all my life. All my life. There’s not a more blessed guy than me.

CW: I asked Dolly about co-writing once and she told me she had done some, but she much prefers to write alone. She said she feels her songs are gifts from God to her . . . and that someone else being involved—no matter how talented—just wouldn’t be on the same wave length on something she sees as such a personal connection between her and God. What do you thing about that?
Dolly being Dolly, she said that very eloquently. You can’t say it a lot better than that. If you look at my career, more things are solo writes than co-writes. I enjoy the process of a co-writer, but I still sort of think of myself as an apprentice in that way. Because the concentration level that I need to be at or end up being at for most of my writing is kinda hard for me to get to in the presence of anybody else. So most of my co-writing ends up being either with people I’ve really known a long time and we’re just sort of goofing around and something comes out of it. Or, in the case of records I produce, if we have everything and we’re just missing one up-tempo song or one ballad or whatever it is we’re missing, sometimes it’s easier just to talk that through and write it than it is to go and listen to a thousand songs from a hundred publishers. That becomes a practical concern . . . it’s easier to co-write. I’m really most comfortable writing by myself. And it’s me. It’s not that co-writing is a lesser endeavor or anything. But for me to relax and let that thing through that Dolly was talkin’ about . . . let that gift come out, I’m able to do that more by myself than I am with somebody else. Although I still revere what some of the co-writers in town are able to do and I still continue to try, the things that I’m most pleased with usually end up being solo things. Because, as Dolly said, it’s a purer thing.

I guess my comparison, the song “All These Years,” which Sawyer Brown cut . . . I just was the guy who was up late that night. I played an A-minor chord and I played that song like I had always known it, like I had learned it out of a book. It was written in the same three and a half minutes it takes to play. I’m not a good enough songwriter to do that. That is just a gift. It was just a song comin’ down the road in Muscle Shoals, and I was the guy that was up that late. And I’m grateful that I was, for whatever indigestion or whatever else was goin’ on (chuckles).  At least that’s my assessment of it. I do respect all types of writing, but I personally have more success writing alone.

CW: I love the record. What a fund way to kick it off, “Blame it On New Orleans.” Sounds like you’ve invested a little time in the Crescent City. Have you been there a lot?
Growin’ up, I was up . . . as Buffet points out, he was born in the fun end of Mississippi and I was up in the buckle of the Bible Belt. I never went to New Orleans ‘till I got a record deal. Consequently, what I’d always heard growin’ up in North Mississippi, was people blamed things on New Orleans. Like a preacher might go haywire and it was, ‘He went to New Orleans to that seminar and he never was the same.’ Or people went there to sort of let it all hang out and then come back home. So I heard a lot of things blamed on New Orleans. My experience there was always it was wonderful food and happy people! (laughs)

The song came about after Katrina. The Coral Reefers went down and played the first Jazz Fest after Katrina hit and they were sayin’ the town is not really ready to put on Jazz Fest, but it’s hurtin’ so much that they need us. And I went down there. I wanted to do somethin’. My buddies like Jimmy live there. He could write the songs about the pain of New Orleans. But I wanted to write something . . . and my vantage point was we’d always blamed things on it. So, in wantin’ to do somethin’ good for the city, I tried to think of a bunch of good things that you could blame on New Orleans. That’s how the song came about. It was me, from my own little Bible Belt vantage point, tryin’ to be of use to the city in its hurt there after the storm.

CW: I don’t think of you as a party animal . . . have you had a hurricane or two in your day?
No, I’ve never been a drinker at all, other than if somebody says, ‘See what this tastes like.’ I think because I started in honky-tonks so early, I’ve never smoked a cigarette, I’ve never had a beer. I’m a total failure as a Coral  Reefer! (laughs) I’m the token Baptist in the band, they say. They’ve come to accept me as I am, here in my 50s anyway. But I’m a party animal when it comes to food! (laughs) And New Orleans is a good place to do that.

CW: There’s a line in the cut by cut . . . ”People in New Orleans had fun in public, which made us supicious.” What was an accepted fun public activity in Belmont?
It was, literally, illegal to dance. It was illegal. As a matter of fact, until 2006, we had to go across the state line to have the prom. So that movie Footloose didn’t seem like a reason to make a movie. That was just reality. (chuckles)

I make it sound like Belmont’s real boring, but I had all kinds of fun in Belmont. It’s just that some of the standard ways of havin’ fun were illegal. (laughs) And there was a curfew at dark. But we used to play hide and seek all night long, with the whole city limits as the boundaries, and there would be 200 kids playin’ tag. It was perfectly safe. So I was extremely entertained growin’ up there. And we had great woods and great neighbors and made up all kinds of games. We seriously were entertained. But, the traditional ways of entertainment were off limits. So, New Orleans was this thing . . . it was always a far-off beacon.

CW: In “Down by the River” . . . I know you played in church as a kid and I know there’s been a pretty strong spiritual component through the years . . . going back to “People Call Me Jesus” and maybe my all-time favorite, “Somewhere Nice Forever.”
MM: Oh thanks, man, that’s a big one for me, too.

CW: Talk about your relationship with the Almighty. Have you, as the lyrics say,  made the trip and taken a dip?
MM: I have made the trip and taken a dip in my angelic choir robe. That’s what went down under the water and my wore-out Converse tennis shoes came floppin’ right up as soon as they put my head down! (laughs) I was a floater, as they say! It was not a text book baptism and probably not the cleanest of conversions. But it took. I probably went to more church services by the time I was 13 than most people go through in a whole life because my mom was always playin’ the all-day singings and we were at church all the time. I’m not as frequently through the door as I was as a kid, but all of the stuff took. I am grateful for that upbringing.

CW: “You First” . . . what a powerful song. I can’t hear it without getting misty.  I know you’re a big supporter of the troops. Is that something you have played for them and gotten a response to?
MM: The nature of my own schedule and the time the record’s been out, I haven’t had many opportunities yet, but it certainly works on the occasions it has happened. And I look forward to continuing on. And I realize, when we put the song out, probably what I’m doing is delaying the person that will record it and have a bigger record with it somewhere down the road, I keep using that. (laughs) But it’s just a special song. Lenny LeBlanc is a great writer and a great friend of mine. That’s one co-write occasion where we got something in there that would be more normal to get from a solo writing experiences. Lenny’s one of my favorite people in the world. I had that title and I called him and said, ‘We could make some examples, like early on, kids daring, being afraid . . . “You do this first, then I’ll do it.” ‘ And then make some selfless examples later. And he said, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I’ll work on it.’

And three months went by, and he came over and he had the verse about the river. And where do we go from there?

My father in law went into Normandy on the third day, and he passed away last year. So he was on my mind I guess. I started thinking about things that he told me about WWII, things that people did for one another. Soldier stories that I heard . . . guys jumpin’ on a grenade in a fox hole to save their buddies and that sort of thing.  There’s probably no more glaring example of self-sacrifice than from our troops. That seemed to be a good vehicle. I got chill bumps all the way through that song, just thinking about what was possible. And then actually realizing it as Lenny and I were writing it.  When I hear it go by now, even though it’s me and I don’t particularly care for my voice, I still get a chill bump. So I know that there’s something in there that will carry on and do some good for somebody. I love being connected to that.

CW: I know you were too young for the Viet Nam war . . . but have you wondered how you would’ve reacted in combat . . . .in those very trying times?
MM: Absolutely. I know people who struggled, particularly through that war, because that wasn’t nearly as supported a war. Guys that I played with in bands went and the ones who came back were maybe in worse shape than the ones who didn’t come back. So I saw a lot that way.

The people I hung out with growin’ up were all older. They were all WW II guys and Korean War guys. Out here with Jimmy, he’s such a historian on what we’ve done military-wise and he’s such a supporter of the troops. And, obviously, there is no greater supporter of the troops than Toby. It just seems natural to point some light toward the men and women who wear the uniform. You can’t appreciate ‘em enough.

CW: “Unresolved” is a heartbreaking song. What’s unresolved in your life? Anything?
MM: You know, I wrote “Unresolved” . . . in my mind, when I wrote that song, I was thinkin’ I was writin’ a song to pitch to a girl to sing. I didn’t really realize when I was writing it that some of the power of it came out of what I had been through. I take very seriously being a friend to my friends and a brother to my sisters and a father to my kids and a husband to my then-wife. I try to do right by everybody. When there’s somethin’ you can’t fix, that’s not a feeling I’ve had much experience with in my life. Usually I can fix things. So, when I go back and listen to that song now, I hear how much of me is in there, ‘cause it’s somethin’ I couldn’t fix . So it’s a bigger deal. But to be honest, I guess it was such a big thing that when I was writin’ the song, it was like, ‘oh this is gonna be good for a girl to sing.’ But there is some power in there that came out of my own pain I think, in retrospect. It just took me a while to recognize it.

CW: “Until Then” is another favorite. The line “looking forward to the day I’m not afraid to watch the news” really sums up that there’s not much good comin’ over the airwaves these days is there?
MM: No, there’s not. But, by the same token, what I try to remind myself of, with that song, with “Until Then,” whatever piece of time we hit the ground in, whatever our particular hand we get dealt in life is, life’s the best thing in the world. It doesn’t really matter . . . I think if you’ve got 6 months to live and cancer, it doesn’t matter. Life is still the best thing in the world. We don’t have an obligation to enjoy it, but we have an opportunity to enjoy it.

That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from Jimmy Buffet, it’s certainly sealed that. He enjoys every day. And he makes a pretty big deal out of every day. If you can enjoy whatever your life is in a way that’s not at the expense of someone else directly, that’s just one of the best things we have access to.

CW: Thanks. I really enjoyed this.
Well, I appreciate the shedding of a little light on the work. Because, as unambitious as I am as a person, I am still ambitious on behalf of the work. I’m proud of the privilege to get to chase the work.

CW: I hope the next one’s not three more years.
Well, I root for that, too. I enjoyed makin’ this one quick. Maybe we’ll do one a little faster.