Hit Songwriter Mac McAnally Debuts Down by the River

CMA Nominee Returns to Spotlight Following Work With Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney

If history is any predictor, country record producers are already poring over Mac McAnally’s new album, Down by the River, to see what lyrical gems it might hold for their own artists.

Although he’s been a critics’ favorite since he began recording as a teenager in the late ’70s, McAnally has had only modest chart success himself. But his albums have become treasure troves for other performers.

Take, for example, his 1990 collection, Simple Life. The 11 songs in that album have so far yielded him 28 cuts, thanks to such standouts as “Down the Road,” “Back Where I Come From,” “Southbound” and the title tune.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Restless Heart both recorded versions of “Down the Road” before Kenny Chesney ultimately vaulted the song to No. 1 earlier this year. With McAnally guesting on Chesney’s recording of the song, their performance found its way to the musical event of the year category when the nominees for the 43rd annual CMA Awards were announced earlier this week. (McAnally’s guitar work earned him another nomination as musician of the year, an honor he won in 2008.)

Chesney also cut “Back Where I Come From” (as did Ricky Skaggs). And Skaggs and Andy Childs both tried their hands with “Simple Life.” Sammy Kershaw scored a Top 30 with “Southbound.”

Listening to the panoramic emotional sweep of Down by the River — with all its exultations and laments — it is hard to imagine anyone else singing the songs half as well as their creator. McAnally’s resonant baritone glides from a murmur to a growl as he proffers unblinking — and occasionally wry — observations about the ever-perplexing human condition.

“My normal procedure is to … let a certain amount of living give me the illusion that I’ve figured something out and then write a song about it,” McAnally says with characteristic self-effacement.

The album opens with the celebratory (but bluesy) “Blame It on New Orleans” and courses through such highlights as the gospel-drenched title cut, the life-assessing “If You Hang Around Long Enough” and the world-weary “Big Disappointment.” “(Nothing Like a) Sunny Day” is as determinedly upbeat as it sounds. “Until Then” is a vow to persevere despite all the pitfalls that urge otherwise.

The man whose hit credits extend from Alabama’s “Old Flame” to Sawyer Brown’s “All These Years” seems ill at ease talking about his considerable musical achievements, among which is his 2007 induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. But he’s aware there’s an irony involved in that reluctance.

“You know, I’m a farm guy from Mississippi, and we were taught that it’s not a [good] character trait to call attention to yourself,” he says. “So here I am in show business, the worst possible place for someone with my particular handicap to be.”

His farm upbringing apparently instilled a fierce work ethic, as well, considering the astounding amount of labor he put into the new album. Besides writing or co-writing all the songs and producing the project, he also sang all the vocal parts and played acoustic and electric guitars, pianos, harmonica, ukulele and some percussion.

When he’s not attending to his own projects, McAnally’s a much in demand session musician and a longtime member of Jimmy Buffett’s relentlessly-touring Coral Reefer Band.

“I’m pretty much in it for the haul with Jimmy,” McAnally says. “He’s been a great supporter over the years with me, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”

As labor intensive as Down by the River was for McAnally, he says it was far from being a solitary undertaking. More than a dozen other musicians played on the sessions, and McAnally teamed with co-writers on three of the album’s 11 songs.

“This particular record differed from my typical ones,” he explains, “in that all my records are usually done on the backburner of whatever other work I’m doing. I was raised to do everybody else’s stuff first. This one — when we got to the point of deciding to do it — had to happen fast. I had roughly two weeks.

“Almost half of that [time] was taken up by Jimmy deciding to do a couple of dates he hadn’t planned on doing. We tracked [the album] in about three days. I did all the overdubs in a couple of days, and I sang all the lead vocals in a day and all the background vocals in a day. That’s not something I’ve ever done before.”

But McAnally concludes that the haste in which it was recorded made for a better album.

“Because I sang all the lead vocals in a day,” he notes, “I knew there were a couple of songs that were going to blow my voice out. That blues thing, ’Bound to Get Down,’ and the sort of soul song, ’On Account of You,’ I knew were going to take everything I had to sing.

“So I put those at the end of the day since those songs kind of benefit from a blown-out voice. They were probably a little bit more passionate, I guess, than they would have been otherwise. There’s more urgency to them because that had to be it. Even though it’s a record, I had to treat it more like it was a performance live. I really didn’t have time to overproduce this record.”

While he is precise in organizing his studio work, McAnally says he defers to his muse when it comes to songwriting.

“I’ve never been what you’d call prolific among my writing friends,” he says. “I don’t write nearly as many songs as they do. I’ve never been somebody who set aside time and said, ’I’m going to write. I’m going to sit with blank paper until songs come out.’

“I’ve always sort of let the songs interrupt my other schedule. They just sort of take over. Consequently, I’ve never doubted that they were inspired at some level. I like that. Because sometimes when you just go every day and sit with blank paper, you don’t really know for sure your motivations. I don’t recommend my method to anybody else, but it’s worked well for me over the years.”

McAnally concedes that songwriting has gotten more difficult for him because he must compete against his best works without repeating himself.

“I don’t want to re-write ’Old Flame.’ I want ’Old Flame’ to be ’Old Flame.’ But I have to avoid [copying myself] because the things that occur the most natural to you to write, you write early in your career. So you have to navigate those things and still be as natural as you can be as time goes on — and, hopefully, still try to be hungry about it. I try to start everything like I’ve never done anything.”

McAnally says he gets as much joy out of co-writing a song that catches on as he does in writing it entirely.

“Absolutely!” he declares. “I’ve never been as comfortable personally in the co-writing process as writing alone because of the nature of how I work. But I have nothing but respect for co-writers. Sometimes people do wonderful things [writing together]. I haven’t historically been as successful in that as writing by myself, but I’m really proud of the three co-writes on this record.

“They were well-suited. You know Al Anderson is such a soul man. I got to do some little gospelly stuff with him on ’Down by the River.’ And Jeff Hanna, being from the [Nitty Gritty] Dirt Band, and myself, we’re both sort of from the Paleozoic folksinger period. So our writing ’If You Hang Around Long Enough’ seems like it’s a perfect conversation between the two of us. And Lenny LeBlanc’s one of my best friends in the world and one of my heroes as a singer and a player. Writing ’You First’ with him, and his particular perspective, was certainly way better than taking it on by myself.”

Stimulating though it is to talk with McAnally about elevated subjects, it seems a shame to end an interview without asking him about one of his more vivid but less heralded compositions, the wildly whimsical “Stephon, the Alternative Lifestyle Reindeer.”

Cledus T. Judd cut the song on his 2002 album, Cledus Navidad, and McAnally did it for his own 2004 collection, Semi-True Stories.

“I wrote it as a response to something that happened on the news,” he reveals. “I saw that there was a group of people protesting to have Porky Pig removed from all the Warner Bros. cartoons because of the bad example it set for people who stuttered. It dawned on me that we, as a society, had gotten maybe a quarter turn too tight.”

The kicker is that Buffett also cut the song for a Christmas album but never used it.

“It got censored by the legal department,” McAnally says. “So Jimmy had to come to me and say, ’Man, I like “Stephon,” but it ain’t gonna make the album because I’m getting all this flak.'”

“I said, ’Well, it’s an honor on one hand to get a Jimmy Buffett cut, but it’s maybe even a rarer honor to be censored by the guy who wrote ’Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.'”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.