Hitmaker of the Month: Shane McAnally on Making Hits Click for Walker Hayes, Sam Hunt, Carly Pearce and Kelsea Ballerini

·18-min read

Shane McAnally might have ended up being the most visible songwriter working in Nashville today even if he hadn’t starred in two seasons of a prime-time show about songwriting, “Songland”… though it didn’t hurt that the NBC series made him a household face as well as liner-notes name.

Currently, he has four songs on the country radio airplay chart as a songwriter or writer-producer: Kelsea Ballerini and Kenny Chesney’s “Half of My Hometown,” Sam Hunt’s “23,” the Carly Pearce/Ashley McBryde duet “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” and a fresh entry in the form of Walker Hayes’ “AA.” As Hayes’ executive producer, and as his label head at the Monument Records imprint, McAnally also has a key connection to a fifth song on the chart, a former No. 1 headed into permanent recurrent status — “Fancy Like,” the phenomenon that is unquestionably the biggest country smash of 2021.

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Does this seem like a man who’s also had time to spend the last nine years working with Brandy Clark on a Broadway musical that is set to open in 2022, pandemic willing?

Perhaps not, but keep in mind that his work on the musical-theater piece has also coincided with particularly long and fruitful associations as a writer and/or producer for Kacey Musgraves, Old Dominion, Little Big Town, Thomas Rhett, Reba McEntire and Midland. He’s also had at least occasional cuts with practically the entire who’s who of modern country music, including Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Morgan Wallen, Little Big Town and Darius Rucker. Although he writes as wide a range of material as anyone who circulates on Music Row, one thing you can just about always count on when McAnally has been in the writers’ room is that the resulting song will have a little bit of soul, as well as a hook to die for.

McAnally is overdue to be named a Variety Hitmaker of the Month, but a period in which he has four such estimable songs on the chart as the aforementioned (or five, depending on how you’re counting) makes for as good a time as any to catch up with this figurehead of Nashville tunesmithing. We got into detail on all those charting songs and also got him to give up the barest of information on what’s happening with his not-yet-publicly-named Broadway show.

VARIETY: Do you still maintain the same active songwriting regimen you always did? These days, you’re a label head, you have a publishing company and you’re a producer; pre-pandemic, you were working on “Songland”; and you’re a father of growing twins. Do those things cut into it?

McANALLY: Well, the main thing that’s cut into my writing is I’m working on a musical. I’m writing, but not in the same everyday Nashville/Music Row way that I was before. I don’t have the normal schedule of writing 10-to-5 like I did for so many years. But I try to get a couple actual writes in a week — what I call an old-school way of writing, for me, anyway, where I still have my appointments show up. And sometimes it’s over Zoom, which I don’t love.

Everything that I write these days seems to be a little more artist-focused. I really don’t have the opportunity to just sit down and write blindly, which I used to just love to do, not worrying about where it was going — just working that muscle and writing a great song with whoever I was getting to work with. These days, because my time is limited, it’s more focused. I produced the Carly Pearce record, so we very much focused on writing songs for her. The Old Dominion project is the same way, and Walker Hayes and Midland — the artists that I act as producer for, that’s where most of my attention goes. And Sam Hunt, we have worked together in the last year…

Is it a positive, on balance, to be writing specifically for projects with the artists involved?

I like it because it’s not as much of a shot in the dark. When you’re writing, we’re at least in sort of a lane — and there’s pros and cons to that. On the other hand, it’s not quite as free as where, whatever’s on your mind, you just go and write it. Because the artists will only say certain things themselves.

There’s so fewer opportunities for those other songs to find a home now. Every year that I’ve been working as a songwriter, I’m seeing less and less outside cuts, where songwriters will just write a song that an artist will go and record even if they had nothing to do with it. Again, the great thing about writing with artists is that you know what you’re shooting for. But at times, you do just want the room just to carry you, and for the idea that struck you that day to just be able to write itself, and not to worry about: “Oh, would this person say that? Is it too young for them? Is it too old for them? Is it too much cheating, because they’re married and they don’t want to say that?”

It is hard not to miss the era of the Alan Jacksons and George Straits, those kinds of artists who are perfectly content to do an album of outside songs. Blake Shelton is still around having hits in doing that, but he’s the exception.

And you can’t help but notice that the longevity of the artists that do that: Kenny Chesney; Tim McGraw; George, who you just mentioned; Reba. I mean, these are people that had multi-decade careers and are still in it. Blake is a great example. And certainly that takes nothing away from the songwriter-artist. I always use Garth (Brooks) as an example — one of the best songwriters of a generation, but he also knew that there were songs out there just to be recorded. And Kenny’s like that. Kenny could write them all himself, but he also knows there are those of us who do that every single day. That is our full-time gig. He’s out there selling tickets, doing radio tours, trying to fill stadiums; it’s not his sole focus.

So thank goodness there are people that still get that there are songwriters that show up every day, and that’s the focus of what they do. So of course they’re going to land on things that are not going to be discovered by someone who’s completely distracted and has a million other things going on, no matter how good of a songwriter they are.

Let’s talk about the four songs you have on the chart as a writer right now, starting with “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” by Carly and Ashley. There are only three of you credited for writing that song, which is already a small number by current Nashville writers’ room standards, and then it’s just the two artists and yourself, which seems downright intimate. How did you arrive at that?

I think Ashley and Carly separately had both asked to write with the other. I wrote “One Night Standards” with Ashley and then I was working with Carly on her new project (“29: Written in Stone”), and so I think they both were like, “We have this person in common, so let’s all three do it.” They’re two amazing artists, but I wasn’t super-excited about it. Because I have had in the past a hard time writing with two artists in the room, because you don’t know who which one you’re writing for. And Nashville artists specifically are so polite that they’re like, “Oh, no, no, you can have it.” “Oh no, you can have it.” And then nobody records it!

They were both working on projects. Luckily, the idea was that they would record something together. We sat down and talked about our love of songs from the past like “Does He Love You” (a hit for Reba McEntire and Linda Davis) that you just don’t hear anymore. They were so up for it and such fans of that kind of music. Once I realized they were willing to say the things that are in that song, and that they wanted to do a duet, it made it easy. And then we were cutting Carly’s record and it was a no-brainer. So I’m really glad that it’s getting a really good response.

When you’ve had the sort of career I have, I’ve had songs that are hits on the radio, but I also have songs that the industry loves. You have people reach out to you that you respect and they’re just like, “Oh, this is a good one.” This is one of the few times where both things are happening — where it’s really connecting at radio, but I’m also hearing a ton from people who I believe are credible opinions, and they’re just like, “This is a really cool one.” It’s really fun when those things cross.

“Half of My Hometown” is about to go top 10 at country radio. You’ve written with Kelsea before, but you’re not a producer on this particular track. Is that closer to more of a writers’ room situation?

I work a lot with Kelsea, and we’ve written a lot of things together. That was five of us in a house for a few days. I don’t remember how that song started. Kelsea may have had that title; she’s a really, really strong writer, and a fast writer. And just the sound of the title — “Half of My Hometown” — the sort of onomatopoeia of it struck us all instantly. There’s even a video of us sitting around the pool writing it. I think Jimmy Robbins is holding a guitar, and we’re just throwing out ideas and lines. And then Ross (Copperman) and Jimmy threw a demo together and we sent it to Kenny Chesney that same night. He related to it because it’s about his hometown, too. (Both Ballerini and Chesney are from Knoxville, Tenn.)

That’s just one of those songs that I’m so glad is out there as a single because people loved it so much. These days there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get a single off a record anymore, because once a song has been out there, even if it’s not been released as a single, it’s sort of like people want (fresher) content — new, new, new. And that song is the fourth single from her album, when having three singles off a record these days is a lot.

It’s just an easy melody, super-singalong-able, and everybody knows that feeling. That whole story of leaving your hometown or staying in your hometown, and what happens to both sides, has always been super-intriguing to me, coming from a small town myself. It goes back to some of the songs that have sort of made me, like (Musgraves’) “Merry-Go-Round.” It’s that same thing of saying: “This is what happens if you get out. This is what happens if you don’t. And God love everybody who chooses either way.”

How did “23” come together for Sam Hunt?

I have been a part of all (Hunt’s previous albums). I produced “Montevallo” (the singer’s smash breakout debut) with Zach (Crowell). I met Sam six months into him being in Nashville, and not only have we had lots of hits together for him, we had tons of hits that other people recorded. And so whenever he starts gearing up for a record, he and Josh (Osborne) and I always go somewhere and start collecting ideas.

Sam likes to go back to the same well of writers, because sometimes he’ll take pieces of other songs we’ve written. He’ll go, “I like the concept over here, but I like the verses of this song.” It’s kind of how we did “Hard to Forget,” particularly. Josh and Sam and I had already written a different song with that title, but then he came across this track that Luke Laird made and said, “I think we could take the bones of that other song, rework it and it will be better over this track.” I use that as an example because it’s a classic example of how we work — the song went through like eight different versions with the verses being rewritten over and over and over. “Body Like a Back Road” has, like, 16 unheard verses! And it’s just because he’s always trying to refine and get it right. It’s almost always like there’s puzzle pieces scattered all over the floor with Sam, and he’ll pick and choose from different ones.

With “23,” though, when we left with that song, it was just a rare moment with Sam where, two months later when he was actually working on recording it, it was the exact same song we had written. With that particular song, he had a track that Chris LaCorte had made. Chris ended up producing the song, and it sounds almost identical to the track we were writing over. It’s one of the few songs where we left with a song that day and that was the way it stayed, which is very rare with Sam. That was actually a little shocking for Josh and me.

Just sonically, I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a song that I love more than “23.” It is just the DNA of what I love as a person. Like, if I’m listening to music, that is the sound I listen to. It’s a song that I would be so mad if I didn’t write it, because I just love it so much.

“AA” just came out as Walker’s follow-up to “Fancy Like,” in anticipation to the full album you have coming out with him. In picking a single, did it feel like a matter of looking for something that was really different from “Fancy Like” in a lot of ways yet not a total 180 in terms of a “oh, let’s do a ballad” switch-up?

I think it was more about that concept for the song. I had had this idea to write a song called “AA”; I had never heard a song called that. And it’s such a strange idea that it would take the right person to write it with and to say it. And Walker is sober, for one — as am I, as is Luke Laird. And when the three of us got together, Walker said something about “Remember that time you mentioned that title ‘AA’? I had an idea about that.”

He had taken it to a whole ‘nother place and made it actually very valuable. I think my idea would have been way more of an album cut, like the last cut on a record that nobody ever heard. He had this idea of it being like the Everyman saying, “We’re doing our best here.” And I think the concept is what pointed at it as the next single, because we needed something that was totally different subject matter than “Fancy Like” – but equally as sticky and sing-along-able — that you did not see coming. It felt so different, but not jarring.

I felt like he needed another song that could break an artist. Because “Fancy Like” was such a phenomenon that it was almost like we were starting at zero again, because people really were looking for a one-hit-wonder situation here. So I felt like we had to have a song that was just as good as it would have been if we had never had “Fancy Like.” And that was my gut about “AA” when we got it done, and Walker’s too, and everybody’s.

You didn’t co-write or produce “Fancy Like,” but you executive-produce everything he does. Did you feel like that song was a natural when it came in, or was the way it took off a surprise even to you?

When one of our artists or writers send me something that I just know has that magic on it, I get emotional. even if they’re funny or up-tempo, it just happens like that and it always makes me emotional. And that song did that to me. The little corners of the eyes get a little glassy, and that is sort of a test for me.

I get a lot more credit on this song, mostly because I’ve worked with Walker for so long and people know that we’re associated. The only thing I had suggested is a little change in the pre-chorus. They used to have a different chord progression and it felt a little expensive. It felt a little overly smart. And to me, the song just needed to stay in that (same zone), where there is no trick here. And so they changed those chords. It was a very small change, but it really set the chorus up. … Honestly it feels better than any success I’ve ever had, and I’m not a writer on it.

This has just got to be a very merry Christmas for everyone involved with Walker, in terms of the vindication for him as well as success for the label.

Yeah, it is. There’s been a lot of happy tears, I tell you that. And like you said, the time of year and just what the world has gone through, and what his family specifically has gone through, and the wait for anything to happen for him. You know, they lost a child, and it’s just been… Saying it’s a very merry Christmas for everyone involved is a perfect way to say it. And seeing that this song is having such a quick start, and he’s selling tickets and it’s connecting and it’s more than just a one-song phenomenon, we’re just seeing it in real time. And I’m such a sentimental person that it doesn’t take much for me to get teary-eyed about it. I’ve said it before, that I wanted it for him worse than I wanted anything for myself, ever. I don’t know what it has been about Walker, particularly. We were just meant to be, and I’m just so happy.

Let’s ask about the Broadway musical. Where are you at on that?

The only thing we’re waiting on right now with the musical is COVID. We had this big workshop we just got back from in New York that was amazing, and everything’s great, and we’re gearing up — and now all the shows on Broadway are getting shut down. And this is exactly where we were almost two years ago now. It has been a blessing for us, because our show has come a long way in two years, and although we were ready and theaters were ready to have us, we weren’t as ready as we are now. So we’re just trying to be patient with it. We were supposed to open at the end of 2019, and it got pushed back and then COVID hit. And if we had opened when we were supposed to, we would be over, because theaters have to let the shows go. You can’t keep your cast on hold. And that’s what you’re seeing with “Jagged Little Pill” and so many other shows. So we definitely see that has been a blessing. Now, we are ready to go, though.

Has the title even been announced?

It does have a title, but it’s not released yet. It’s not a big secret, because a ton of theater people come to the readings, but there hasn’t been a press release with that title. So much hasn’t been released about it. We don’t have our dates yet; they’re just waiting to announce officially. People do know I’ve been working on this forever. That’s not a secret.

It’s something that I have now been involved with Brandy Clark for almost nine years. We’ve probably written upwards of 40 songs for it, although there are only 12 in the show. Over nine years, we’ve just written, changed, rewritten — it’s such a different world than what we do in Nashville. But it’s been such an incredible journey, and working with her is just a thrill. I love working in that world and telling stories like that, and I can’t wait for you and everyone to see it. Everything is so up in the air, but I have been told, by all accounts, that we’ll be up this year, in 2022. So I’m hoping that the world abides by those rules. [Laughs.]

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