Mac McAnally Reprises Career in Live in Muscle Shoals

Despite Achievements, He's Still Driven by the Urge to "Get Better"

Any new album from Mac McAnally is ample cause for rejoicing, but one that exhibits not just his songwriting, vocal and instrumental skills but his wit and storytelling talents, as well, has to be counted as a cultural landmark.

And that’s a fair description of his latest collection, Mac McAnally: Live in Muscle Shoals, on Mailboat Records. Recorded in July 2010 at the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the album showcases 17 of McAnally’s career-building songs, plus a sizzling rendition of the R&B classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

To carry off a project that arcs from country to R&B, McAnally surrounded himself with some of the most versatile musicians in the business. From Jimmy Buffett‘s Coral Reefer Band, of which he’s a longtime member, McAnally drafted drummer Roger Guth and bassist Jim Mayer.

He also brought out of musical retirement Duncan Cameron, the former lead guitarist for Sawyer Brown (and now a pilot for Southwest Airlines). He rounded out his ensemble with studio stalwarts Jack Pearson on electric guitar, Steve Nathan on piano and keyboards and Cindy Walker and Rachael Robinson on background vocals.

No shirker himself, McAnally chipped in on acoustic guitar, mandolin and piano.

“It was certainly done in earnest,” McAnally says of the album. “We rehearsed one time, and we played one show. We said, ‘If it stinks, we won’t put it out. If we end up happy, we will have lucked out.’

“And I think we did kind of luck out. It was a great crowd and a really good band. I was in the middle of doing a bunch of other things, so I didn’t have time to get nervous about the fact we were just recording one show only.”

Although the album isn’t laid out chronologically, it does begin with “It’s a Crazy World,” a song he wrote when he was 16 and with which he had a No. 37 pop hit when he was 19.

“I’ve got a specific memory of [writing] that one,” he says. “I played a gig and came back to where I was staying in Booneville, Miss., and turned on the all-night television. We only had one station that went all night, and it showed Western movies. But that night, it was showing Elmer Gantry.

“They had those long, not-regulated, eight-minute commercials that would run at 2 or 3 in the morning. I got used to how long the commercials were and literally turned the volume down and picked up my guitar and played a D-minor chord and sang that song.

“It just fell out of my mouth exactly the way it is now, like I’d always known it. I would love to say it was inspired — and I feel like it was. I know I wasn’t smart enough to [be that philosophical] when I was 16.”

While he scored much earlier as a songwriter, McAnally didn’t break into the country charts as a recording artist until 1990 when his “Back Where I Come From” peaked at No. 14 on the Warner Bros. label.

McAnally’s spoken introductions to his songs are as enjoyable as the songs themselves. Sometimes he intros with just a witty line or two. More often, he tells a droll and fully-rounded story.

“I may be the only human being on the planet that’s ever sat on the beach in Bora Bora, Tahiti, and missed Sheffield, Ala.,” he quips in his introduction to “Down by the River.”

In describing how he was persuaded at age 13 to work in a band that played honky-tonks, he observes, “I learned a couple of things going straight from the First Baptist Church in Belmont [Mississippi] to the Circle E Club in Iron City [Tennessee]. … One is you’re playing to the same crowd basically.”

Speaking of the song “Down the Road,” which Kenny Chesney took to No. 1 in 2009, McAnally drawled, “Kenny’s a pretty big star. He can drag me all the way up the charts like an ankle weight.” (McAnally’s own recording of the song reached No. 70 some 19 years earlier.)

He says he comes by his sense of humor naturally.

“My family was that way,” he says. “There was no tragedy that we didn’t find something to lighten it up, not disrespectfully, but just always a part of the recipe for dealing with it.”

Sharp as it is, McAnally says he’s never been inclined to use his wit to cut people down.

“My nature is to help bridge things,” he says. “I never have liked it when people don’t get along. So what I do is make light of conflict, even in ‘All These Years’ [a 1992 hit for Sawyer Brown that McAnally performs on the Live album].

“As serious a song as that is,” he points out, “there is humor in it. It’s about infidelity, and when the wife says [to her cuckolded husband], ‘You’re not the same man you used to be,’ he says, ‘Neither is this guy.’”

McAnally, who was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007, says his early aspiration was to be a prose writer.

“Then,” he explains, “when I was introduced to Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, folks who’d written about my part of the world way better than I was ever going to write about it, what I sort of did was take my little short stories — they might have been mediocre short stories, I don’t know — and condense them into the song form, hopefully just leaving what’s important and cutting everything else away from it.”

Besides the songs already mentioned, Live also contains “Blame It on New Orleans,” “Dark Ages,” “Pop Top Hop,” “Miracle,” “Café on the Corner,” “Opinion on Love,” “This Time,” “Bound to Get Down,” “Little Blue Pill,” “On Account of You,” “Last Man Standing” and “It’s My Job.”

Of these, only “Café on the Corner” — which deals with the fate of dispossessed farmers — falls into the “protest song” category. McAnally admits he’s uncomfortable with conflict.

“I was always somebody they tried to keep from watching the news,” he says. “I don’t want to say I had a big heart, but I wasn’t in control of it. If I saw somebody hurt, I hurt. Still to this day, it hurts me to watch our news, to watch how disrespectful, how hateful at this point our two parties are to one another.

“[It's] that way in religion as well. Denominational religion gets really combative. If you have 99.1 percent of all things in common, you fight like cats and dogs about the .9 percent you don’t. Politics are the same way. I don’t believe that either side of our political world here in America wants to drag America down, but both sides will say that about the other. … My nature is to figure out ways for people to get along.”

Followers of McAnally may be disappointed not to find “Old Flame,” the 1981 hit for Alabama, “Two Dozen Roses,” the 1989 hit for Shenandoah and “Thank God for You,” the 1993 hit for Sawyer Brown, on the album.

“We played a medley [of those songs],” McAnally says. “It was not one of the better performances, and we had to limit [how much went on] the CD.”

Apart from promoting his album and touring with Buffett, McAnally continues to produce and play on sessions for other artists. At this month’s CMA Awards , he’s nominated for musician of the year, an honor he’s won the past three years.

“I don’t see myself doing a big right turn with my career,” he says. “My general mindset is just to get better, whether it’s as a neighbor or a brother or an ex-husband. Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want to get better at it.

“I want to be a better guitar player. I want to get better making records and better at writing songs. If you’ve done something at any sort of high level at all, wanting to get better is a pretty challenging thing. I work harder at getting better now than when I was 15.”

McAnally notes he’s still guided by a simple dictum from childhood.

“My mama always told me, ‘Make yourself of use,’” he recalls. “Honestly, if I can do that in any way, it’s gratifying to me. I don’t care if I’m playing guitar or if I’m producing or writing a song or singing a background vocal or going to get the cheeseburgers for the folks who can do it better than I can do it. It doesn’t make any difference. I’m being of use.”