Mac McAnally's got it made in the shade as the songwriter sharing credits for Alabama's "Old Flame" and other No. 1 hits and the guitarist whose studio and on-stage work earned 10 CMA Musician of the Year awards in 11 years. He's also been a go-to producer for Restless Heart and Sawyer Brown and tours with constant collaborator Jimmy Buffett as a member of the Coral Reefer Band.
Even with those accolades, McAnally's still eager to improve upon a solo career that dates back to the '70s with one of the best new albums of the summer, Once in a Lifetime (released on July 31 by Buffett's Mailboat Records).
"Every time I do something, I wish I was better, and I keep wanting to get better," McAnally says. "Music is a world where a lot of times after people are 35 or so, you've got to really work to try to get better. For folks that have been successful, there's not even that much motivation to get better if you're good enough that you've got a big fanbase. I've never been quite to that point."
McAnally scored a top 15 hit with the 1990 single "Back Where I Come From," a selection from Warner Bros. release Simple Life. Greater success came in 2008 when McAnally appeared as a guest vocalist on a song he wrote: Kenny Chesney's No. 1 hit revision of "Down the Road."
When talking with him about Buffett, a co-writer of album highlight "Changing Channels," it becomes clear that McAnally's happy to fill a supporting role--as long as his solo pursuits get better and better.
"I was a fan of Jimmy's before I ever met him or heard from him," McAnally says. "I made my first little singer-songwriter album that came out in '77. He wrote me a little note that said we're both storytellers and both are from Mississippi. We're going to be friends, sing songs and make music together. You never know who means what they say in the show business world, but it turns out Jimmy Buffett really does. It's probably been more of a benefit to me than it has been to him, but we're great pals and great songwriting buddies."
The McAnally and Buffett friendship pairs a musician's musician (and songwriter's songwriter) with a natural born superstar.
"Jimmy has some of the ambition that I was born without," McAnally says. "I never really wanted to be the guy in the middle of the stage so much when I was growing up. I wanted to play in a band, and I wanted to figure out a way to write some music. But I never had that desire to be a guy in the spotlight. Jimmy has enough of that that I can draft off of him, in the NASCAR sense of drafting. It's worked out great because I'm sort of a detail guy. Jimmy has a million ideas a day, and I can help him finish out some of those ideas. As I say, I can draft some off his larger than life persona and stand next to him and get to play to big crowds."
Buffett's not the only former Auburn University student involved with the creation of Once in a Lifetime. Its title track features Auburn grad and "Livin' The Dream" singer Drake White.
"My studio these days is down in the Muscle Shoals area of Sheffield, Ala. Drake's from Gadsden," McAnally says. "We recorded some tracks on him a couple of years ago, and we got to be friends. Our song that we did together on this record was really by chance. We just ran into one another at a restaurant, and it came out of a conversation. I think common experience and being proud of our rural, Southern roots was probably the initial tie, and he's just a great guy and a phenomenal singer."
Of the other tracks, the lone cover probably stands out the least on paper. Yet McAnally's recording of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" is way different than first time listeners might expect. McAnally wrote his own quirky arrangement while playing an octave mandolin, adding his own twist to a classic while reminding us that his listening habits over the years included more than gospel, folk and country music.
If you think about it, McAnally's experimental streak is more in the spirit of The Beatles than the usual, straightforward cover of the Fab Four's history-altering embrace of raga rock.
"The Beatles pretty much invented about half of the things people do in the studio to this day," says McAnally, who's worked in studios since age 17. "They were the groundbreakers, the pioneers of so much of the way records are made now."
Once in a Lifetime Tracklist
- "Alive and in Between" (Mac McAnally)
- "Almost All Good" (McAnally)
- "Once in a Lifetime" feat. Drake White (McAnally, White)
- "First Sign of Trouble" (McAnally)
- "That's Why They Call It Falling" (McAnally)
- "Changing Channels" (McAnally, Buffett)
- "Just Right" (McAnally, Will Kimbrough)
- "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)
- "Good Guys Win" (McAnally, Roger Guth)
- "Just Like It Matters" (McAnally)
- "Brand New Broken Heart" (McAnally)
- "The Better Part of Living" (McAnally)