If at first you don’t succeed..
As a Curb Records artist in 1999, Shane McAnally charted a few under-the-radar country singles before moving to L.A. where he spent almost nine years writing with little or no tangible success. But as Shane recounts below in his own words, a chance “Act Two” writing trip from L.A. to Nashville set in motion a series of events that have blossomed into an incredible career.
McAnally has won multiple Grammy Awards for his work as a songwriter and producer and was named the ACM 2014 Songwriter of the Year. His credits include producing artists like Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Kelly Clarkson, Jake Owen and Old Dominion. He’s written dozens of hits for artists like Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), Kenny Chesney (“American Kids,” “Somewhere With You,” “Come Over”), the Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”), Sam Hunt (“Leave the Night On”), Lady Antebellum (“Downtown”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow,” “Merry Go Round.”)
McAnally initially formed SMACKsongs to house his own work, but the company has now swelled to contain six staff writers and a sharp creative team. Prolific seems to be an understatement for this hard working musician who has virtually owned the top position on the NEKST Top60 Country Songwriter chart for most all of 2015 often with as many as eight songs gaining activity. He’s also co-written a Broadway show with Brandy Clark and Robert Horn which opened last month in Dallas.
The following article covers details of McAnally’s “overnight” rise to fame, plus candid advice for new writers. The Texas native also offers suggestions for improving the Hold process, an inside look at why hit songs today are written with artists and so many co-writers, plus reflections about scheduling, writing for Broadway and his company SMACKsongs…
NEKST: Forming SMACKsongs adds your name to a select list of successful independent writer/publishers in Nashville. What’s its history?
Shane McAnally: I was living in LA, writing songs after being in Nashville during the ‘90s. I got some music in an independent film, “Shelter” that sustained me for 7 or 8 months plus I was playing songwriter gigs. The shows were selling out, but I was still working as a bartender, too. I returned to Nashville for a writing trip after being gone for years and honestly no one would write with me. It was even harder than being a new writer because I had previously lost my record and publishing deals and left town. I felt like damaged goods. Erin Enderlin and I formed a writing camaraderie through a friend. We were a good mix/match. I love hard core country music so I really appreciated her sensibilities. On that trip we wrote “Last Call.” Erin was writing for Universal and got the song to Lee Ann Womack. Robin Palmer, who pitched me songs when I was at Curb Records, was one of the only publishers I still knew and she kept in touch when I went back to LA. Lee Ann finally recorded “Last Call” so I decided to return to Nashville. I rented a room from my sister, got a job at a restaurant in Hendersonville and waited for “Last Call” to come out. In the meantime, I was writing with Erin and a handful of others. One of the songs which happened at that time was “Somewhere With You,” written with J.T. Harding. It was representative of how I wrote and phrased, but not what was going on in Nashville at the time. Robin just had an instinct about it and kept saying, “This is a song that could change things.” So I said, “Get it cut and I’ll split the publishing with you.” She did—with Kenny Chesney. Next we started shopping a publishing deal for me that included her as a creative partner. Michael Baum, my life partner, was living in Atlanta, running a mortgage company. He advised, “Why would you give your publishing away now? Before when nobody wanted it you and Robin held out. With a Kenny Chesney single coming things will change.” And he was right. So Robin and I got these little offices and got busy. We got one more cut that first year on Luke Bryan, but it wasn’t a single. Then “Alone With You” came out on Jake Owen and it felt like a rush. Robin was pitching my songs and I was writing them as fast as I could. It was scary for both of us, but that’s how SMACKsongs got started, around 2009. “Somewhere With You” actually went number one in 2010. It happened so fast in those few years, but I’d worked for 20 years getting there.
NEKST: Who was your first writer signing?
Shane McAnally: Once we started having success Robin made some deals to pitch other catalogs which helped us carry forward. Then in 2012 my friend Trevor Rosen’s publishing deal came up. I was writing so many songs with him and could just feel he was about to break. Robin and I decided Trevor should be our first major writer signing, but we were still skittish about spending money so we co-signed him with Ree Guyer. Trevor is now in Old Dominion and their song, which I produced, is Top 5. A few years ago we also signed Matt Ramsey the group’s lead singer. Old Dominion became a passion project because I was writing so many songs with those guys. We’d demo songs we wrote and they’d end up being Old Dominion records. Suddenly SMACKsongs was acting as publisher, producer, manager all at once. Then Clint Higham got involved on the management side and we released a song that got picked up on satellite radio and that proved to be the launch pad. Soon the labels came running. It was a similar experience when I met Sam Hunt a few years ago. We started writing together, then I began producing some demos for him and now Sam has gone on and done great things. I’m starting to recognize that instinct in Kacey Musgraves, too. What always makes me the happiest is being at a place where I know something is really great. We took Old Dominion to every label before we did it ourselves and they all passed. I’ve learned when you really love something, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says.
NEKST: Why does it take 3-5 guys to co-write songs today and an artist?
Shane McAnally: Today it seems like an artist is always in the room, but it didn’t become common until music sales began shrinking. Radio is set up in a way that artists aren’t paid when their songs get played—only writers and publishers. That is likely why artists started getting inserted into writes. And in some cases it has hurt us creatively. It can tilt the other way too, because writers create songs that elevate artists to stadium careers where they make enormous nightly fees, but writers don’t participate in that revenue. Truthfully, a lot of Nashville artists are legitimate writers and would have song careers anyway. When you look at great stylists like Conway, Reba or George, nobody, especially the listener, cared if the artist wrote the song or not. After having a tiny label for a short amount of time I better understand the problems on all sides, but it sometimes puts people into uncomfortable creative situations. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of success with non-artist writes. But when you have 10 spots on a record and the artist has to write over half of them, you’re dwindling the slots for songwriters unless they are in the room with artists and there’s only a handful of us that get that opportunity.
NEKST: What’s your writing schedule look like?
Shane McAnally: I write five days a week and a lot of times twice a day to finish something or include an artist write. My normal schedule is 11-3, but I almost always set aside an hour before that to finish what we started the day before. Usually at three I leave to work on a record, because I’m now producing five acts. I also use afternoons to demo songs that weren’t written with track people like Ross Copperman or Luke Laird. What’s so helpful about the tracking movement is I don’t have to schedule a demo session. But I still enjoy sitting with the guitars and writing the way we always did. So it is just different things. At night I’m usually listening to songs pitched for my artists and new songs from my writers. I’m still a publisher and want to help develop these guys find the best places for their songs.
NEKST: Is the “hold” process getting any easier?
Shane McAnally: Holds are a daily struggle. I hadn’t dealt with this much because Kacey, Sam and Old Dominion all write their own music, but Jake Owen who I’m producing now, writes and takes outside songs. Trying to field all the incoming songs is complex. Often when a new song with multiple publishers is demoed it gets sent to a lot of people at the same time. Unfortunately— and I now know this because I’m on the producing side—a hold doesn’t always mean they will cut the song, or even that the artist will hear it. It means they don’t want anyone else to cut it for a minute. And that is unfair…
NEKST: Can it be fixed?
Shane McAnally: It may be a bit extreme, but holds could go away. If/when someone really wanted a song, they might pay an agreed upon fee, say $10k for a six-month or 12-month window. That investment would be returned by the publisher out of first royalties received. And even though $10k isn’t that much when considering the revenue streams, it probably would keep people from holding 40 songs for a 10 song album. That way the artist has a real investment in the song and a hold would have meaning.
NEKST: How much power do publishers have over the hold process?
Shane McAnally: The publisher still has to grant a license which gives them some control and means they can withhold a song from a new or unheard artist if an A-level artist is also interested. A&R people are desperately looking for hits for their new talents, so sometimes they’ll switch your pitch from the A-level artist you sent it to and suggest a newer artist. Maybe there are A-level artists at another label who haven’t heard it yet, but you can feel the pressure. And after a song is cut—even if it only appears as a Walmart bonus track—it’s very hard to get it cut again.
NEKST: What advice can you give new writers?
Shane McAnally: Live in Nashville. Being here is essential. I don’t take anyone seriously who’s not. I’m not saying that no one has ever had a hit who doesn’t live here. For example, Lori McKenna lives in Boston but she spends a lot of time here, is immersed in the community and a great writer. But when a new writer sends in a song from another city and asks, “How do I get this to George Strait?” Well, I’ve spent 20 years walking Music Row every day and getting to know everyone I can. For you to expect the song you sent to be heard by an A-level artist isn’t realistic. Secondly, it’s about finding your crew, something I missed the first time I came to town. I used to think, if I could write with Craig Wiseman or Phil Vassar I could have a hit and everything would be fine. But my first five or six hits were actually written with people starting out just like me. Find like-minded people, a tribe that understands and loves you. There were six of us that started writing and working together about six or seven years ago—Brandy Clark, Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Matt Jenkins and myself and sometimes J.T. Harding. Now all of us have had success. Three of us had record deals. Josh Osborne is now the hottest thing on the chart. Yeah, back then I thought if I could get in the room with Luke Laird it would change my life, but the truth is I wasn’t ready. And he had his own crew.
NEKST: Do song trends change your writing?
Shane McAnally: We’ve gotten so wordy and I’m probably part of that movement because I love shotgun lyrics like “Somewhere With You” where it’s almost impossible to get in all the words. I’m pushing right now in my writes to just feel it, I don’t even care if we just take a breath for a line. I feel over-rhymed, onomatopoeiaed and over-structured. We’ve gotten so pop. I hope that trend will send some of us in the other direction like it has in the past, but perhaps radio hasn’t quite decided if they are ready to do that again. My favorite stage of country music, was a very pop period around ’78-’83 with Ronnie Milsap, producer Tom Collins, Alabama, Barbara Mandrell and writers like Dennis Morgan and Kye Fleming. These people were creating the songs I heard in my formative years. At the end of that trend there was a movement of some really country records. It happened again with Garth and Alan Jackson in the early ‘90s. You can plot the cycles.
NEKST: You spent six weeks in Dallas tweaking “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical,” just before it opened (written with Brandy Clark and author Robert Horn). How did you fit that into your routine?
Shane McAnally: The show threw a big wrench in my writing schedule. Not writing five days a week was hard because I’m competitive and want to stay ahead of the trends. I want people to say, “Wow I can’t believe he wrote that, too.” But it revived me in a way I could never have imagined. I’m obsessed with the process because I don’t have to ask, “Would Tim McGraw say this?” I’m part of the character development so I can decide what they would say it. We really listened to everyone’s advice, watched every show we could and tried to create something that would bring people from country to Broadway and vice-versa. We want to show that country music is intelligent and sophisticated with deep roots about real people.
NEKST: How did you seal the deal with your latest signing, Josh Osborne?
Shane McAnally: Josh was initially the first person we wanted to sign, long before he had success. He has so many ideas and can write with anyone. Back then I felt like we were doubling down on ourselves too much since we wrote together. I thought it’s better to have another company pitching these songs. So Josh went to Black River with Celia Froelig and did exactly what I expected which was to have a million hits. When his deal came up I couldn’t offer him the money that Black River and every other major in town was offering. So making him a partner was intentional and a great long term investment in both our futures. Josh is one of these super-solid people like a Bob DiPiero who will have hits for a very long time.