Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Shane McAnally sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Sam Hunt’s “Hard To Forget,” Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s “Nobody But You,” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow.”
Long before Shane McAnally had 44 No. 1 songs to his name, he was trying to find his place in the country community as a gay man. While many of his songs are in current rotation on country airwaves today, it took decades of writing before McAnally saw success on his own terms.
The Academy of Country Music’s reigning Songwriter of the Year and 2020 ACM Awards nominee nostalgically recalls his early childhood in Texas and his fascination with songwriting. He began writing songs around the age of nine and at that time understood the structure of songs and how to rhyme.
“I knew how to wrap up a chorus in a way that seems abnormal looking back for a kid that young,” McAnally tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “35 years ago there just wasn’t a 12-year-old kid out there that we knew of playing songs that were formed to songs that were on the radio. I was recording my own songs around 13, but that also didn’t mean that I was any quicker getting there than anyone else. I didn’t have my first cut until I was 34, so from the first time I recorded a song of mine until the time I heard it on the radio was over 20 years.”
While writing songs was his passion, the performance bug never left McAnally. He made an appearance on Star Search as a kid, and would spend his weekends in Texas and Oklahoma playing gigs. He moved to Nashville in the early ’90s where he pursued an artist career and signed his first label deal with Curb Records in 1999. He had modest success with three charting singles and shortly after losing his first deal, signed a development deal with RCA. Still trying to find his voice as an artist and songwriter, he moved to Los Angeles.
“I always wanted to be accepted. I always wanted to be a part of the country music community,” he says. “Growing up, that just seemed so important. But it also seemed impossible because I was gay, and I just didn’t think there was a place for me at the table.”
The more he focused on his songwriting in L.A., McAnally knew he had to return to Nashville. He moved back to Music City in 2007, and his songwriting career took off after Lee Ann Womack recorded and released “Last Call,” a song he penned with Erin Enderlin that peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 2009. The three-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter says it wasn’t until he came out in the writing room that he hit his stride.
“When I stopped looking at the monetary prospects and I stopped saying, ‘How much money will this make me?’ that’s when I started writing my most authentic songs, and I also had come out in the process,” he says. “That was a decade-long process of knowing who I could and couldn’t tell. I had different groups of friends and different groups of collaborators and some knew, some didn’t, and that was a lot of plates to juggle.”
Success came quickly after with cuts by Kenny Chesney (“Somewhere With You”), Luke Bryan (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), among others. McAnally credits his friendship with Kacey Musgraves for helping him come out in the writing room. “It was never a big deal to her,” he says. “She became sort of this hero among the gay community and she was for me too. I learned by watching her not giving any more or less attention than anybody else who might be different.”
The ace songwriter recently celebrated his 44th No. 1 song with Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s duet “Nobody But You.” McAnally enlisted the help of Stefani to attain his first single with Shelton. “We didn’t write it as a duet. We wrote it with them in mind: more about him to her,” he explains of Shelton’s most recent chart-topping single. “I didn’t have his number, so I sent it to her and said, ‘This is for Blake.’ We were good enough friends that she understood why I was sending it. I was like, ‘Look, I can’t get this right in his hands and if you feel like you have the moment to play it for him … I just think this is how he feels about you from what I can tell.’ They have a really special relationship. She and I had talked about it, so I took a chance. It was a scary chance.”
“Hard To Forget,” McAnally’s latest hit with Sam Hunt, is also climbing the charts. Currently in the Top Five on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, what became the hook of “Hard To Forget” was initially written by McAnally, Hunt and Josh Osborne in September 2018 as an entirely different song.
“It had a much darker tone,” McAnally recalls while reciting the song’s lyrics. “‘You left but you ain’t left me yet/ You’re playing hard to forget.’ It didn’t feel anything like the song now. It was all about that, ‘playing hard to forget.’ It’s one of those hooks that you’re waiting for all the time.”
In another co-write, songwriter Luke Laird played a track he was working on for Hunt and Ashley Gorley that included a snippet of Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass.” Hunt immediately knew how special the track was and wanted to use the initial hook from the song he penned with McAnally and Osborne on it.
“Sam’s excellent at that. One of the things that he does totally different than any writer I’ve ever worked with is that he’ll keep pieces from songs that he doesn’t use, and he’ll come back and be like, ‘Remember that second verse of that song that we wrote? I think it would sound good as its own song,’” McAnally says. “It’s nice because we get to re-purpose a lot of things. Most of the time when you write with an artist, if the song doesn’t work in the record they’re working on, you never hear it again. In Sam’s case, there are so many songs that as he evolves and as he makes different records, I know they’ll show back up.”
While McAnally has written thousands of songs over the years, the song that holds the most meaning to him is Musgraves’ “Rainbow.” He penned “Rainbow” with Musgraves and Natalie Hemby seven years ago and it was included on Musgraves’ 2019 Grammy Award-winning Album of the Year Golden Hour. A favorite song of Musgraves’ grandmother, following her passing the singer decided to include “Rainbow” on Golden Hour.
“It was this amazing gift from all these years ago. Then the song became a completely new thing for me because we had a family friend who we were very close with [and] that became her theme song through her cancer battle,” McAnally says gravely. “She passed away in October and the song took on a completely new life. She told our kids that she would always show up in rainbows, which we see everywhere all the time in the most unusual places. That song for me has become the most important piece of my catalog and something that will far outlive anything that I do because it has taken on a life of its own. I don’t even remember how it was written; I just know why it was written.
“More so right now with the coronavirus, so many people have used that song as a mantra,” he continues. “It’s reached a lot of people.”
While McAnally’s catalog of songs have made him one of Nashville’s most revered songwriters, his talents have expanded to television personality and label executive. In 2017, he teamed up with Sandbox Entertainment CEO Jason Owen to relaunch the Monument Records imprint for Sony Music. He also serves as the CEO of the publishing, management, and artist development company SMACKSongs, which he founded in 2012.
In 2019, McAnally signed on to serve as a mentor on NBC’s Songland alongside OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and Ester Dean. Each week four aspiring songwriters share and workshop their songs in hopes that an artist will record it. McAnally admits that before the television opportunity came to him, he started to realize how much he missed the performance aspect of writing songs.
“I knew I didn’t want to pursue an artist deal and stand on stage and sing, but I missed the feedback of a crowd or the feedback of an audience of some sort. I started to pray about that and what that would look like,” he says. “And that’s when Songland came along and it really satisfied that feeling of, ‘This is something I have knowledge in and I’m confident in.’ It does let me explore my musical boundaries and create, and it also lets me share some of my personality. For me, I’m on a show in a situation where I get to be 100% myself.”