You can look far and wide throughout the music world, but you’ll never find anyone more deserving of respect and acclaim than Mac McAnally. You’ll also never find anyone who feels more awkward about accepting kudos from his many admirers.
It’s not like he’s a stranger to the spotlight. He’s been releasing albums since he was 20 years old – this being his 13th so far. He’s experienced the heady thrill of topping the singles charts, in a duet recording of his composition “Down the Road” with longtime pal Kenny Chesney. He’s also written several No. 1 hits, beginning with Alabama’s “Old Flame.”
His star shines even brighter among music business insiders. For years a first-call musician in both Nashville and Muscle Shoals, he has amassed vast session credits with George Strait, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Keith Whitley, George Jones, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Billy Joel, Trisha Yearwood, Reba … really, it’s probably easier to list who Mac hasn’tplayed with since he started doing studio dates in the late ’70s.
His peers have voted him CMA Musician of the Year for an unprecedented eight years in a row. He’s a member of the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. It’s gotten to the point where he can’t even drive down Second Street in his old hometown of Belmont without seeing his name on a marker, honoring him along with Jimmie Rodgers, Marty Stuart and a few other legends along the Mississippi Country Music Trail.
All of that would swell anyone’s head but McAnally’s. His humility is nearly as well known as his many accomplishments — a fact he humorously acknowledges in the title of his new album, scheduled for Sept. 11 release on Mailboat Records.
“William Faulkner once said something about wishing that it would be only the artist’s work, not the artist, who might be judged,” he says. “I agree with him, so A.K.A. Nobody is what I call the album. It’s not that I think I’m uninteresting, but I have never been comfortable saying, ‘Hey, look at me!’ I just would like somebody to hear this music and say, ‘This is good work.’” Even that is a modest aspiration for this collection. Appropriately for one who has written, produced and performed for artists of varied temperament, A.K.A. Nobody is a rare achievement — a rainbow of styles illuminating McAnally’s singular gifts. The opening track, “A Little Bit Better,” written with Chris Stapleton, is an easy-on-the-ears amble that reflects on self-improvement — again, a sign of McAnally’s self-deprecation as well as his inherent optimism. What follows is as diverse as the sights along the Mississippi Country Music Trail: “Last But Not Least,” a sweetly harmonized meditation created with Zac Brown Band on losses incurred despite “good intentions” … “Don’t Remember Leaving,” penned by McAnally during a lonely layover in Singapore … “Someday,” an intricately crafted and arranged rumination on the uncertainties of life (“Things will be better one day — possibly never”) … and “Working Prayer,” whose beautiful detailing, whispered harmonies and honesty (“I want to believe I have something more to offer … “) add up to a revealing portrait of this exceptional artist and human being.
There’s much more on A.K.A. Nobody. McAnally unfurls soulful piano chops on several tracks, including “Place Where You Belong,” written with Al Andersen, and “Better Get The Story Straight.” (In a rare acknowledgment of a job well done, McAnally admits, “This one sounds better than it sounded in my head. That’s me trying to play like my mom, who was a great gospel piano player.”) He offers his take on his performance of “Island Rain,” a song he wrote with Kenny Chesney years before, and does the same with a different tune penned with Jimmy Buffett.
“Jimmy is my longest running co-writing relationship,” says McAnally, a longtime member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. “We wrote ‘Coast Of Carolina’ as a sequel to ‘Come Monday.’ It wasn’t written for me to sing, but I get requests all the time in my show to play it. My youngest daughter Alyson, who is the production coordinator on A.K.A. Nobody, has lobbied me to record a version, and I hope we did it well enough to do the song justice.”
For all the perspectives McAnally offers on A.K.A. Nobody, two tracks stand out as especially different. With its driving swing beat, deft picking and atmospheric accordion from Jeff Taylor of the Time Jumpers, “Zanzibar” evokes the magic of Django Reinhardt’s Parisian jazz. “My father was a World War II veteran and I’m sure this was the kind of music he might have used to court my mom,” McAnally says, with a smile.
On the far side of the spectrum, “With a Straight Face” is among the most serious songs in McAnally’s catalog. Framed by intimate chamber strings, it tells the story of two children, a girl and boy, each cowed into hiding their true natures while growing up in an intolerant world.
“I tried to write ‘With a Straight Face’ for a long time,’ McAnally admits. “I grew up in North Mississippi and had a couple of friends who were gay and suffered from the judgment that it brought. I wanted to wait so I could write it with a songwriter friend who is also gay, so I could have something that wasn’t just empathetic but was also authentic. But we were both too busy to make that happen. So I wound up finishing it by myself, but I’m proud of how it turned out.”
Though he writes constantly, McAnally didn’t sense that he had laid the foundation for a new solo album until he had finished “With a Straight Face,” “Last But Not Least” and “Working Prayer.” “That’s when I knew I’d be making this record,” he said. “I never really know when or if I’m going to do another one until the music lights me up. It has to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘We’re here.’”
And so, fortunately, is A.K.A. Nobody, a masterpiece born perhaps in spite of its creator’s endearing, genuine humility. Ultimately, though, that becomes as indispensable to this music as McAnally’s multi-faceted skills. With his love for literature and reverence for evocative lyric and melody, he emerges here as less of a star in the modern sense but more like a classic storyteller.
“I’ve been around storytellers all my life — Southern whittlers and guys at the courthouse,” he says. “I’ve listened to the melodies in their conversation, the rising and falling. I’ve watched how they use their hands and tried to translate that into music. I’ve read a lot of Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor — the Mississippi writers. I’m definitely not in their league, but I’ve tried to write as if I were cooking short stories down to a reduction of three-minute songs. It’s not that I’m a brilliant guy or anything; that’s just the way I work.”
Brilliantly, A.K.A. Nobody proves to the world that Mac McAnally is somebody — unique and irreplaceable.