He’s behind a slew of No. 1 hits for Nashville’s biggest stars, but for the prolific songwriter, success means something more: championing the voices that push country forward.
A pandemic may have brought much of the music industry to a halt, but it hasn’t stopped Shane McAnally from going to work. In Nashville studios this summer, the songwriter-producer and his collaborators have been wearing masks and keeping their distance in isolation booths. They have even started workshopping ideas over Zoom -- which McAnally admits has taken some getting used to. “One thing I do love about it is that it’s very efficient,” says the 45-year-old, who also juggles a publishing company (he’s founder/CEO of SMACKSongs), a record label (he’s co-president of Monument Records) and a mentor role on NBC’s Songland. “We’ll see how many of those songs have the same personality that things do when you’re in the room with someone.”
With three Grammy Awards and 32 No. 1 singles on Country Airplay alone for such acts as Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Old Dominion and Thomas Rhett, it’s safe to say McAnally has high standards. Yet that volume of hits is only one element of a legacy that has earned him Billboard’s 2020 Trailblazer honor. As one of the few out songwriters working in country music, he is often approached by other LGBTQ people who say they didn’t know they could make it in Nashville until they saw McAnally thrive. (His response: “I didn’t know you could, either!”) He’s especially proud of championing voices like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt, whose collaborations with McAnally -- including, respectively, “Follow Your Arrow” and “Body Like a Back Road” -- challenged conventional wisdom about what a country hit could be. Despite their recent successes, those artists were hardly safe bets early on in their careers. “When someone said ‘Kacey’s too country’ or ‘Sam is too pop,’ these were things that made me want to do it more,” says McAnally. “I know the magic of when someone doesn’t fit.”
For a long time, the Texas native didn’t think he fit in Nashville, either. He had a brief stint as an artist, releasing an album on Curb Records in 2000, but lost his label and publishing deals shortly after. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he spent about seven years wrestling with his identity and bitterly wondering if he would ever make it in the industry. Two things changed his attitude: He fully came out after meeting his now-husband, Michael McAnally Baum, with whom he has two kids, in 2007. (Baum is president of SMACKSongs.) He also gave up on waiting for his big break. “I finally had this epiphany of ‘I’m doing music because it’s the only thing that consumes me. I’m not doing it to make money,’ ” he says. “When that happened, that’s when I started making money.” In 2008, he landed his first big cut as a songwriter: Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call.”
McAnally talks about his second act in Nashville -- and the community he has found there -- in almost cosmic terms. He compares working with people like SMACKSongs chief creative officer Robin Palmer and artist manager Jason Owen, his Monument co-president, to being “surrounded by angels.” He believes in putting your dreams out into the universe, because when he did, people like Brandy Clark (with whom he’s writing a musical) and Josh Osborne (a close collaborator and SMACKSongs partner) entered his life and helped make them happen. In McAnally’s world, business partners become friends and family and vice versa. “I’m going off in bumper-sticker land saying all these clichés,” he says with a laugh. “But this is just the way it’s supposed to happen. It’s meant to be.”
Congratulations on being named our 2020 Trailblazer!
Thank you! Does that have something to do with me being a ginger?
I think you might actually be the first ginger to get this honor.
I feel like I've been blazing trails my whole life!
What do you think of when you hear that word applied to your career?
I like being on the front lines of things. When someone says, “I didn't know you could do that” or “I didn’t see that coming,” that's what I love more than anything. In the field of songwriting, it's all been said one way or another, but I really like to surprise myself and push my collaborators into saying something in a different way. I think I have an instinct for when something is unique without being jarring.
And then being a gay songwriter in Nashville -- and having the list of songs I've written with the “establishment” or “the good ol' boys” -- hopefully something I've done has given someone else the courage to raise their hand. I don't feel like I've always taken the responsibility of representation head-on. I talk openly about my husband and my kids, but that didn’t come for me until I had success. I started talking about being gay because I didn’t think it would hurt me. I'm so blown away by people that take that step beforehand and aren’t afraid of what it might do to their careers. I'm trying to do better.
The history of queer voices in country music is richer than a lot of people might think. Does having an important place in it make you interested in seeking it out?
It does, but I am still completely ignorant to it. In the late ‘90s, when I had an artist deal, I was not only in the closet to other people, I was still in the closet to myself. I was so afraid that whatever I was feeling would ultimately keep me from being in country music. Around that time, Ty Herndon was having hit after hit, and there were a lot of rumors about [his sexuality]. Then he had this scandal that pushed the rest of us even further into the closet.
There’s a saying about how the people that went first took the bullets and the people behind them are the ones that got to stake a claim. I feel like that with Ty and Chely Wright, who came out much later. And there are other gay songwriters, but there’s not that many in my genre. Do I have an important place? I don’t know. But I do know that people see me. People approach me all the time and say, “I wouldn't have come to Nashville because I'm gay and didn’t know you could do it.” And the truth is, I didn’t know you could, either!
What does it mean to you to have worked so closely with artists like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt, who have shifted the sound and ethos of country music in a lot of ways?
That's where I feel more deserving of something like a Trailblazer [honor]. Being gay is something that I was. I didn’t choose it. But I did choose to work with artists that weren't the safe bet. When someone said “Kacey’s too country” or “Sam is too pop,” these were things that made me want to do it more. I know the magic of when someone doesn’t fit.
I saw it over and over in the artists I loved -- Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton. You look back at them and go, “Wow, these are all people everyone said wouldn't work.” Sam Hunt and I went to every label in town. We sat down at every executive's office in Nashville, and every single one of them -- including the label he ended up on -- passed. That happened with every artist I worked with, with the exception of Kacey. Every single label we played her for wanted to sign her.
When people talk about your career, they often briefly mention your short run as an artist and then cut to your success as a Nashville songwriter. But you spent about seven years in Los Angeles between those two periods. What does that time represent to you now?
It’s so much easier to just say I’ve been in Nashville since I was 19, but, yeah, there was a seven-year period, after I had lost my record deal and publishing deal. I was just burned. Look, I had a huge ego. I was entitled. I considered myself to be one of the better singer-songwriters in town, and nobody cared. And I’m not saying that was true, but that’s what I thought: “Well, Nashville just doesn’t get me.” I never thought it was about being gay, because nobody knew. I thought it was because I was making music that didn’t fit, which isn’t true either -- I was chasing everything on the radio.
Ultimately, I had to go to L.A. to find myself. I spent seven years writing songs by myself, creating some sort of sound. I was playing for a couple hundred people every couple of weeks. I was so frustrated because the shows were so fun -- everybody kept coming back like, “I love your shows!” -- but no one had a friend that could help me. No one ever knew someone who could do something for me.
I was waiting for this savior, but it had to be me. Not that people didn't help me -- a ton of people helped me -- but I had to accept myself and feel comfortable in my own skin before I could find any success. And I wrote a lot of songs that spoke that. Songs about being gay that weren't on the nose, but the room knew what they were about. Songs about my relationship with my dad. I wrote songs about the relationships I was in -- sometimes to the dismay of my partners. But all that was part of the cathartic journey that led me to writing songs that stood out.
With SMACKSongs and Monument, a lot of artists’ careers are in your hands now. How do you approach that responsibility?
I have so much empathy now for people in labels where before I had resentment. I would think, “They must not want the artists I’m working with to succeed, they must be jealous.” What I realize is they feel responsible for all of their roster -- and their roster is married and has kids. The livelihood of all their families is based on their careers. I try not to make promises I can’t keep. I do feel responsible, and it makes me work really hard. I wake up and think, “Oh my God, Walker Hayes has six kids!” (Laughs.) And I love those kids and him and his wife. He's never put any expectations on me to make sure they're all safe for the rest of their lives. I really want everyone to have everything, but I'm not in charge of that. I have to remember that all the time.