The Producer’s Chair: Shane McAnally

Shane McAnally

Shane McAnally

Don’t miss Shane McAnally, current nominee for ACM Songwriter of the Year, on The Producer’s Chair on Thurs., March 31, at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m.

Shane McAnally started writing songs in Texas when he was 8 and was performing in clubs by age 12. He appeared on Star Search at 15 and later spent a summer performing in Branson, before returning to Texas and becoming a regular on the state’s Opry circuit. In 1993, he moved to Nashville at age 19. He signed with Curb two years later but despite tours with Reba, Kenny Chesney and Alabama, his five-year stint failed to yield radio success. He moved to Los Angeles and worked as a bartender while continuing to write and play music.

Thankfully McAnally wasn’t finished with Nashville. In 2008, he got his first major cut with Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call,” written with Erin Enderlin, and he moved back to Music City. The next year, he scored a Luke Bryan cut. In 2010, the flood gates opened with Reba cutting “All The Women I Am,” (McAnally/Kent Blazy/Marv Green), “Cry” (McAnally/Brandy Clark), and “The Day She Got Divorced” (McAnally/Clark/Mark D. Sanders); and LeAnn Rimes recording “Crazy Women” (McAnally/Clark/Jessi Jo Dillon). McAnally’s first No. 1 arrived in 2011 with Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You,” a co-write with J.T. Harding. Not bad for a guy without a publishing deal. But that was only half of what was brewing.

Along the way, McAnally’s obsession with songwriting led to his transition into producing. It all began when he organized the first of many songwriter retreats at a cabin on Center Hill Lake with Brandy Clark, Josh Osborne, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen and Matt Jenkins. At the time, they’d all been kickin’ around for about 10 years with little success. But something clicked as they began writing and recording their demos, and McAnally found himself, at their request, producing their demos. They called themselves The Hit Shitters.

This was the foundation for Smack Songs, McAnally’s publishing, production and artist development company launched in 2011 with partners Michael Baum and Robin Palmer. Staff writers include McAnally, Ramsey, Rosen and Osborne, as well as Josh Jenkins, Matthew McGinn, Jo Smith and Walker Hayes.

Brandy Clark eventually bought the cabin, where she and McAnally collaborated on music for Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, which debuted in Dallas in September 2015 and is headed for Broadway.

McAnally’s production credits now boast major label albums by Kacey Musgraves (Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material) both co-produced with Luke Laird; Sam Hunt’s Montevallo co-produced with Zach Crowell; Old Dominion’s Meat and Candy; and Jake Owen’s upcoming album co-produced with Ross Copperman.

To date, McAnally has had over 150 major cuts, 15 of which went to No. 1. Last year he was named Billboard’s No. 1 hot country songwriter, No. 4 hot country producer and Smack Songs was the No. 7 hot country publisher. He has won CMA and Grammy awards, and every album he has produced or co-produced has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Album. Transition complete.

The Producer’s Chair: How did you get your first No. 1?

McAnally: Robin Palmer was one of the only people in town that I could meet with. She used to pitch songs to me at Curb when I was an artist. We weren’t great friends but we had met a few times and she was open to hearing my stuff. I had “Somewhere With You” and she was so certain about it that she pitched it 11 times. When Kenny Chesney finally recorded it and it became a single, it was a moment where Robin and I were like, “Let’s just jump off together.” It started happening really fast after that. And that was what started Smack.

What is your partner Michael Baum’s career background?

Michael is a problem solver. He was a loan officer in Atlanta. He and another banker started their own business and next thing he knew he had 14 branches and 180 employees. Even though the music business is a totally different world, it’s still problem-solving. I’m the first person to say, “I can’t do that.” He’s the kind of person that says, “I can find someone who knows how to do that.” I didn’t know the way that those kinds of things could work so well together. I’ve learned a lot and respect that side of things a lot more now. Knowing how important that is has been a big part of [our success].

With the company doing everything under one roof, is there a possibility of Smack becoming a label?

We acted like a label for Old Dominion before Sony bought their deal. If you walk and talk like you’re a label, then you’re a label. It’s a matter of convincing yourself that it’s OK. They were on XM and we were funding them to record. Then a label and management company with more experience came in and took it to a place we couldn’t. We learned how capable we were during that process and we wouldn’t change one thing. But next time we are more equipped to take it in [a bigger] direction.

If Smack became a label what would be your greatest challenge?

Country radio is still dominant, so I think that would be our biggest challenge. Radio promotion is very hard and very expensive, and the majors have it down. Radio promotion is a part that scares me because this town that is so radio focused.

How did you get that first producing gig, working with Kacey?

She’s responsible for me seeing myself as a producer. We were all friends and we would set up a demo session at a studio, to record the songs we had written at the cabin. I was writing with Kacey and she also wrote with Luke Laird. Luke and I had written but we weren’t all a team yet. When the three of us got into a room, it was like we couldn’t stop. Luke is a great musician and engineer. I was more of an instinct person. Then she said, “You guys are my producers.”

How did Kacey get her deal with Mercury?

She and I went to all the labels with our five-song demo that Luke and I had done. Every person that we went to offered her a deal on the spot, Scott Borchetta, Mike Dungan and then Luke Lewis. Ultimately she and Luke had instant chemistry. There’s nothing that doesn’t happen for that girl that she isn’t doing. I was with her prior to management, and when Jason Owen came on as manager, he took it to the stratosphere without looking at radio—period. That was a new lesson for me, that you just do what you can.

Publicity-wise, she’s almost like a cartoon like Dolly Parton. It’s just so specific that you don’t know if radio is ever going to get on that train, but it’s too special to not be heard. And because she is so talented and authentic, everyone rallied. She got a lot of attention outside of Nashville with all the big magazines. Jason knew that world because he came from L.A. publicity. He was managing Shania Twain. He knew how to bring things to the table that a record label, which is more focused on radio, didn’t know the value and power of.

How do you feel about producing artists that aren’t songwriters?

I am fine with that. I have not worked with someone who is solely a singer or musician. When you look at the careers of George Strait, Reba, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw—they were able to find amazing material and not be bogged down between choosing between their song and someone else’s song. I would be very interested in finding someone like that.

How did you and Zach Crowell wind up co-producing Sam Hunt’s record?

Sam and I started writing about six years ago. Then we cut demos together and the sound evolved to a point where sound-wise it was out of my wheelhouse. We needed someone else and that’s where Zach came in, because they also co-wrote together. And Zach did a track and Sam was like, “This is the missing element!” Again I’m not an engineer, I don’t know how to do things the way Zach does. I knew how to work with live musicians. There are elements of the sound that [were more] electronic, and that’s where Zach came in. I don’t sit in front of the computer and play with sounds, but he can do that for hours.

Did Matthew and Trevor put together Old Dominion when you guys were at the cabin?

Matt had a band prior to those cabin things with his buddies from Virginia. Two of them are still in the band with him. They just played music but they weren’t called Old Dominion. They had different names and then it started to happen. While that was happening, I was doing demos on Matt Ramsey, the lead singer. We would pitch these songs and a lot of times people would cut the songs, but they would never sound better than him. And then it was like, “Why aren’t we just doing something with y’all?” So it kind evolved like that.

Did you write a lot of the songs on Jake Owen’s new album?

Ross Copperman and I wrote a lot for the record and co-produced it. Jake is always on the road, and he wrote a couple of songs for the record too, but we didn’t all end up writing together. Jake tends to lean to Jaren Johnston as a writer and cuts a lot of his songs because he likes the phrasing. It sounds like one or two people wrote the record, but it’s a lot of writers—16 songs and we are almost done. We have a few mixes. The single came out this week and had a huge impact.

When it comes to writers and publishers not getting paid fairly, who are the worst offenders? And is there anything, anybody can do about it?

Pandora and YouTube. I left ASCAP after 22 years and went with Irving Azoff’s new company Global Music Rights. It is a boutique PRO that can go up against YouTube because their deals are not already in place. All the PROs are trying, but he has a little bit of an opportunity because he started his own company to catch up with streaming. That is going to be our new radio. Radio is what has made songwriters viable and so we have to get them caught up.

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