Most songwriters spend their whole lives hoping an A-list star will record just one of their tracks. Country songsmith Shane McAnally has lived that dream a hundred times over — literally. “Come Back to Me,” featured on Keith Urban’s new album, Fuse, recently became the 39-year-old’s 100th track to be cut by a signed recording artist.
“It was just natural to me,” McAnally says of the talent that’s made him one of the industry’s most in-demand scribes. “When I was a teenager, I started to discover that, you know, the people singing the songs aren’t always the people who wrote the songs.” Indeed: Following a failed bid as a singer in the ’90s and an eight-year break from the business, he’s found his stride writing hits for pretty much every boot-stompin’ star on Music Row — including Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan, the Band Perry, and Kelly Clarkson.
He’s thriving personally, too. An openly gay man in a city and an industry not known for championing love stories that don’t conform to the gender roles in a George Strait ballad, he married his longtime partner, Michael Baum, in 2012, and they welcomed a daughter and a son last December. EW caught up with McAnally after a CMA Songwriter Series event in Nashville in early November to talk about his singular success story.
The Nashville Bug Bites
Born and raised in Mineral Wells, Tex., McAnally left the University of Texas when he was 19 after a fortuitous visit to Music City’s Bluebird Cafe, the legendary local venue made nationally famous by ABC’s Nashville. “I came up here on spring break with a couple of guys I went to school with, in my grandmother’s minivan,” he remembers. “I’d heard that you could go to the Bluebird and put your name in a hat, and if they drew your name, you got to play a song. And they drew my name! I mean, it sounds so made up, but that is really what I did. I came back [to Nashville] probably two months after that.”
In The Closet, Out Of The Game
He quickly landed a label deal and recorded an album, which spawned a few minor hits in 1999 and 2000, and he even opened for Alabama on the road. But his nascent career ultimately sputtered. “It just wasn’t in the cards for me,” he says. “At the time I was really closeted and really afraid of that, and I think that God or the universe, or whatever you believe, took care of me, because I don’t know what would have happened had [the singing career] taken off. I was so scared of anyone finding out — and I wasn’t even, like, out to me.” He subsequently moved to L.A., came out, and worked as a bartender and waiter for the next eight years, still sometimes performing for small crowds under the name Shane Mack.
Chesney Takes A Chance
In late 2007, McAnally returned to Nashville on a songwriting trip set up by a friend. “It was worse than being brand-new — an artist who had lost a record deal coming back,” he says. “I mean, nobody gave a s—, nor did anyone remember me.” But a song that resulted from that trip, called “Last Call,” caught the attention of Lee Ann Womack, who cut it immediately. “It was like, okay, I guess I’m supposed to come back to Nashville,” he recalls. McAnally made the move, and one year later scored the biggest break of his life when Kenny Chesney asked to record “Somewhere With You,” which became a No. 1 hit. “That was like setting fire to me,” says McAnally. “All of a sudden everything I had been writing mattered, and he sort of anointed me, not even knowing he did it.”
Following His Arrow
Today McAnally is considered a go-to man for Nashville’s elite, though his buzziest co-write might be for newcomer Kacey Musgraves, whose latest single, “Follow Your Arrow,” has sparked conversation with the lines “Make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” For him, any perceived controversy seems overblown. “It feels unprogressive, the attention put on that,” McAnally says. “I think people don’t give Nashville enough credit. I just have not seen the separation here. It was me, prior — the fear was me.” Also getting noticed? His Wade Bowen track “Songs About Trucks,” on which Bowen bemoans the glut of “flatbed Dodge Ram dirt-road ditties.” It’s being heralded as a much-needed antidote to Nashville’s current obsession with Solo-cup-littered tailgate tunes — which is funny, considering McAnally and co-writer Brandy Clark originally set out to write just that kind of mindless anthem. “I’ve had a few party songs get cut, but maybe it just doesn’t read as authentic on me,” McAnally admits. “I like the brooding stuff. I like the sort of sexual longing. I don’t know why. For whatever reason, that reads a little more true in my songs.”
McAnally’s Greatest Hits
Merry Go Round, Kacey Musgraves
Downtown, Lady Antebellum
Songs About Trucks, Wade Bowen
Better Dig Two, The Band Perry
Fade Into You, Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen (from Nashville)
Mama’s Broken Heart, Miranda Lambert
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Luke Bryan
Alone With You, Jake Owen
Somewhere With You, Kenny Chesney
To stream a full playlist of McAnally-penned hits, go to ew.com/shane