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Monday, 29 June, 2009 2:38 AM

Mac McAnally Finds Sweet Spot as CMA Musician of the Year

Photo by Stan Kellam

Mac McAnally

By Bob Doerschuk
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

What does it take for a musician to earn the respect of their peers? One would think the key lies in what you play. But, truth be told, plenty of players can nail a lick like sharpshooters pinging skeets from the sky.

Sometimes it's more what you don't play that counts. And in the case of guitarist extraordinaire Mac McAnally, winner of Musician of the Year at the 2008 CMA Awards, that may have made all the difference.

Make no mistake: McAnally can pick with the best in the business. He's recorded 11 studio albums, including his upcoming debut on Show Dog Nashville, written multiple No. 1 hits including the recent duet with Kenny Chesney "Down the Road," produced albums for Jimmy Buffett, Little Feat, Sawyer Brown and Ricky Skaggs among others and is an expressive singer too, on backup or lead. His forte, though, isn't flash but rather the more elusive task of coming up with a part that fits the song. That means a lot on gigs he plays as a member of Buffett's Coral Reefer Band, on his own shows and on sessions he's done for George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Toby Keith, Reba McEntire, Roy Orbison, Linda Ronstadt, Hank Williams Jr. . and even "The Simpsons."

This ability stems from the fact that McAnally brings more than chops to the table. As his longtime friend and frequent producer Tony Brown pointed out, "Mac is probably the only musician now who plays sessions, plays full-time in a band, is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and has been named CMA Musician of the Year."

Add one more credential: McAnally's agreeable, self-deferential personality. "He's successful almost in spite of himself," Brown added, laughing. "It's fun to watch him deal with all this stuff and be embarrassed about winning awards."

"Well, I don't really look at music as competitive," McAnally explained. "I've always rooted for my friends at the CMA Awards. And because I do quite a few things, I've never really thought of myself as being at the highest level of any of them. [Dobro master and former CMA Musician of the Year] Jerry Douglas, for instance, could be half as good as he is and still be the best in the world at his instrument. So when people started talking about me being nominated, I thought they were joking."

Even as a child back in Belmont, Miss., McAnally was drawn to music as a complete experience, not just as a matter of writing or playing but as an integral part of life. Too poor to purchase a television set, his family entertained themselves by inviting neighbors to come by and make music together, as often as three nights each week. Gathered on the front porch, playing everything from mandolins to saxophones, they touched something in the young McAnally's mind as well as his heart as he absorbed what he heard into his own growth as a musician.

"Some of them weren't great musicians, but they made a joyful noise, as the Good Book says," he remembered. "There were always lots of people singing. The standard three [vocal] parts were always going, and I was always trying to hear an extra note - one thing more than what was going on in the room. We also had an old Wollensak turntable, where you had to put 30 cents in change on top of the needle to make it play. I would listen to the left side [of the stereo], and then I'd listen to the right side and try to hear how things were put together. I always wanted to understand how music worked."

Though he took some piano lessons, McAnally responded more enthusiastically to guitar. He learned the basics of finger-picking in the Chet Atkins style from a local teacher, Mickey Campbell. ("I got an e-mail from him after the CMA Awards," McAnally noted with a smile, "saying how proud he was that I was his prize student.") By age 13 he was playing gigs, at churches in Mississippi and honky tonks across Tennessee. Two years later, he was recording in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

"I played my first Union session there, for Hank Jr.," he recalled, chuckling. "I had to drive to Birmingham and join the Musicians' Union at 10 o'clock and then get back to Muscle Shoals at noon for the session. But the Union rep in Birmingham made me watch the whole 45-minute film about being a fraternal brother, so I was like, 'I'm going to be late for the first session in my life!' I didn't realize that at Muscle Shoals 'noon' really meant '4 o'clock.' It turns out I was the first one there - even though I was two hours late!"

Working with members of the classic Muscle Shoals rhythm section, McAnally specialized as an acoustic player, adding texture and sweetening to the unit's funky, raw sound. This knack for finding a place in the heart of the tune had a lot to do with his parallel gift for writing songs.

"In the very beginning, I wanted to put my mark on anything I played on - some kind of hot lick or a little curl that was different from what somebody else would have done," he said. "But pretty soon into it, I kind of quit playing guitar and started playing the song. Whether it's a cardboard box for percussion or whatever I'm playing, I'm reinforcing some positive aspect of the song. I don't know how that translates to the listener, but I know that I sleep really good at night when that's my pursuit."

By the late 1970s McAnally's reputation had spread to Nashville, which became his home base. "It took me a while to get into that 'three songs a session' schedule," he admitted. "At Muscle Shoals, we used to cut a song over two days. I hesitate to say that one way is better than the other, but I think it comes down to the difference between creation and re-creation. The nature of the music business today is that somebody has to have made a demo that sounds exactly like a record for you to even be in the studio, so you are in effect creating what so many people have already approved. There are wonderful aspects to both approaches, so I try to carry the best of both around with me."

McAnally's gift for finding the right part has served him well in Music City, where enhancing the song has always been top priority. And when presented with a song that speaks powerfully on its own, that can mean paring your contribution to the barest essence. Perhaps the best example of this can be heard on Keith Whitley's "Don't Close Your Eyes," recorded in 1988 at Nashville's Sound Emporium Recording Studios, on which McAnally's accompaniment enhances the tune just as a frame may bring out the best in a painted masterpiece.

"It was inspiring," he recalled. "It was a very simple song, but they liked how I was framing Keith's voice, so when it came to the first turnaround, Garth [Fundis, producer] said, 'Mac, you just take that.' And all I did was play the melody. That was the right thing to do, because the melody was gorgeous. It just stood up by itself."

"Mac was the consummate musician," said Fundis, looking back on that date. "I've been producing for more than 30 years now, and while I really depend on my instincts, I also depend on managing the instincts of the people I invite into the session. Mac was just the right guy for that. Jack Clement and Allen Reynolds taught me a long time ago that less is sometimes more, and Mac instinctively goes to that place."

"I didn't realize that Mac had played on some of those Keith Whitley records, but it makes total sense that he did," Brown concurred. "That's why I brought him in on the last two George Strait records that we did in Key West, where we won Album of the Year at the CMAs [for It Just Comes Natural in 2007 and Troubadour in 2008]. Part of the refreshing sound was from Mac being on those tracks. He can do just about anything you want done. To me, it shows that people were really paying attention when they marked the ballot for Mac as Musician of the Year. I am so glad he won; it's so well deserved."

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