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From the Vault: Mac McAnally (2009)

Originally published in the Sept. 21, 2009 issue of Country Weekly featuring Dierks Bentley on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.

Mac McAnally is one of the fortunate few. He’s known since the early days of his Belmont, Miss., childhood that he was put on this earth to be one thing.

“As soon as I hit the ground and they brought me home [from the hospital],” recalls Mac, “one of my grandmothers said, ‘He’s got the call to preach,’ which is a serious throw-down statement 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,” he 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 Mac has made the most of his life’s calling. The son of a church pianist mother and public school educator father, he had his first band gig at age 13, playing in a state line honky-tonk in Iron City, Tenn.—in a green leisure suit—because his Tishomingo county was dry and literally didn’t even allow public dancing.

Mac made $250 a week—more than his dad made at the time—and the band leader picked Mac up, drove him to the gig and brought him home at 2 a.m.—“to get ready to go to junior high school the next day!” laughs Mac.

“When this guy came and said he was gonna pay me $250 a week to play piano when I was 13, that seemed absurd,” recalls Mac. “I felt like I won the lottery. 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!” he laughs.

From those humble beginnings, Mac’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 award for his guitar work. He’s also released 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 six No. 1 hits as a songwriter, including his recent duet with Kenny Chesney, “Down the Road,” a tune Mac originally wrote and recorded for his own Simple Life album in 1989.

Others hits for Mac the songwriter include Alabama’s, “Old Flame,” Kenny Chesney’s, “Back Where I Come From,” Ricky Van Shelton’s, “Crime of Passion” and Sawyer Brown’s “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 Buffets’ Coral Reefer Band?

But in spite of his dazzling accomplishments, Mac remains the modest Southern boy he was brought up to be. And, as appealing as that is, it may just be a reason he isn’t a household name throughout America today. Simply stated, Mac has never craved the spotlight.

“That’s the farm boy,” he explains of his small-town values. “It’s not considered a quality of character to call attention to yourself. 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,” he laughs.

“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 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. It’s about the music.”

Judging by Mac’s current single, the powerful “You First”—his debut release from his 11th album, Down by the River, recorded for Toby Keith’s Show Dog Nashville label—he is still getting better. The song honors self-sacrifice, and Mac knows the tune, written with Lenny LeBlanc, is special.

“There’s probably no more glaring example of self-sacrifice than from our troops,” he confides. “I got chill bumps all the way through [writing] 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.”

The rest of the songs on Down by the River are equally impressive and even more so because Mac’s busy schedule required him to sing all of the vocals for the album—except “You First”—on the same day, something that’s unheard of in modern music. The resulting raw, bluesy vocal sounds on a couple of tunes suit the songs perfectly.
“I knew that ‘Bound to Get Down’ and ‘On Account of You’ were pretty much gonna blow out my voice when I sang ’em,” declares Mac, “so I saved those ‘til the end of the day. [My voice] was goin’,   but I think it lent some emotional quality because it was all I had . . . this is it.”

Other highlights include the opening “Blame It on New Orleans,” a love letter of sorts Mac wrote to the city following Hurricane Katrina, and the powerful closing tune, “Until Then,” an exhortation to make the most of every minute of life.

But the song that brings Mac’s career full circle might just be the title cut, with the spirit-filled message Mac soaked in during frequent neighborhood gospel sings at his parents’ house back in Mississippi. When asked if, as in the song’s lyrics, Mac has made the trip (to the river) and taken a dip, he replies as only he can.

“I have made the trip and taken a dip in my angelic choir robe,” he relates. “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!” he laughs. “I was a floater, as they say! It was not a textbook baptism and probably not the cleanest of conversions. But it took, and I am grateful for that upbringing.

“And, fortunately, since I was 13, I’ve kept the light bill paid with my passion. 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.

“There’s not a more blessed guy than me.”