Mac McAnally is the humblest man in the spotlight. A songwriter and guitarist for Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, the Alabama-born, Mississippi-raised McAnally is recognized as one of country and rock music’s more prolific and lauded songwriters, but it’s certainly not a label he’d award himself. His new album, AKA Nobody, even pokes fun at his famously bashful nature. I spoke with him over the phone ahead of the Bowl show on October 15 about hometown pride, touring with Jimmy Buffett, and why he wants to be a nobody.
Where are you right now? [I’m] in the studio mixing with my friend Liz. She’s written a bunch of hits for other folks but this is the first album of her singing. I exist largely through other folks’ careers, and she and I have that in common. I wasn’t in line the day that they passed out ambition to be in the center of the stage.
That’s unusual for a man in music. Yeah, I grew up on a farm and we were sort of taught not to call attention to ourselves. The irony that I try to make a living in show business, which pretty much demands you call attention to yourself….I’ve been really fortunate to exist in this business for a long time without changing my nature — I’m still not gonna say “Hey, look at me” and I get to make an ironic joke out of it.
Tell me about the title of your new album, AKA Nobody. A few years ago they asked me to design a guitar strap, and mine said “Nobody” in big block letters. It’s gotten to the point where you can see that on stage and some of the band call me that and I kind of like that. Jimmy made a guitar strap that said “Somebody,” and we had banter back and forth that you’re nobody till somebody loves ya. It was a running joke for a while, basically just to stay humble. I’m somewhat known as nobody, and I have an ambition to be nobody. I like approaching every day without considering whether I’ve achieved anything before, or I like to start a new song like I’ve never written one before. I start from scratch and that helps me do that.
How does it feel to receive accolades or have your face on an album cover? Well I don’t take myself that seriously. I’m gonna always self deprecate. Every award I’ve ever been given, whether a Songwriter Hall of Fame or all seven of Musician of the Years I’ve been given, I always demand a recount. At the same time, you have to be honored. People that do the same thing that I do vote on the CMA awards, so I would never say it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t feel deserving, but the fact that other people see some merit in me; I am truly honored by it. And the names that I get to sit among, Chet Atkins and Mark O’Connor and Jerry Douglas….The people that have won it are my heroes, truly my heroes, and friends as well. So I want to represent the honor that I feel from that, and at the same time say that I’m the third best guitar player in my band.
You are a great lyricist and refer to yourself as a storyteller. Who are your favorite writers, literary or lyrical? Well, early on it was probably more literature, but as music goes, I was always a huge fan of Randy Newman. I got to open shows for Randy a couple years here and there. John Prine is a favorite. Jimmy Buffett is such an underrated lyricist, he’s such a great entertainer and so clever. He’s not just spewing them out, he chooses his words very carefully. Joni Mitchell is a hero. Musically, because I’m a studio musician, I have to be a Beatles fan, because they invented about half the stuff we do in the studio. They were really good lyricists when they decided to be lyricists, but it seems like they weren’t that concerned with it. Sometimes you think about what lyrics sound good with melodies, and that’s my least favorite thing in modern lyrics sometimes: A lot of words in modern songs, it seems like they’re just sort of, here’s the words, here’s the music, let’s slap them together and make a sandwich. And I don’t begrudge anybody any kind of success, but I tend to stick with people who have carefully chosen how words sound with the notes that are sung with them. Among modern musicians, although he’s a Muscle Shoals guy, I think Jason Isbell is one of the finest songwriters out there right now. I’m proud of him, and he’s a hometown boy so I would root for him on a lot of levels, but he also happens to be as good as anybody working.
Do you feel a lot of pride for where you come from? Oh, absolutely. Jimmy’s notorious as a Cubs fan and a New Orleans Saints fan. We thrive in the underdogs, and Mississippi, our home state, is either #50 or #1 according to what you’re counting. We’re the poorest state every year, we struggle the most with education and with what to eat, but at the same time we turn out a William Faulkner and a Tennessee Williams or Elvis Presley or Robert Johnson or B.B. King, so I think you end up with a little bit of pride for what you get to overcome. I don’t mean anything negative about Mississippi; all success has to come with some degree of overcoming. The fact that our obstacles were obvious from the beginning meant we felt a long way from anything happening. It probably helped the people that came out to have some resolve, to help them achieve what they had to achieve. I don’t consider it to be a disadvantage or an advantage. There are advantages and disadvantages to where you land on the globe, and I do feel a kinship to that sort of underdog.
What kind of struggles did you overcome to get to where you are today? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m a goofy looking idiot who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. The fact that I didn’t have it in my nature to be at the center of the stage….but the fact is I’ve existed in show business since I was 13; I’ve been playing music for a living and making records since I was 18 years old. That’s 40 years; the average career in this business is like sports — five years is a lot, and I’ve never been an overnight success. I’ve been the oldest guy in the New Faces concert maybe five or six different times. I’ve never had resounding success, but I’ve kept electricity on in at least one house since I’ve been13.
I’ve been privileged to sidestep my own nature and exist in this business of sort of self-aggrandizement and flourish and I never had to change. I don’t think I ever bent my nature. I realized from the beginning my nature put a lot of pressure on my songwriting. My songs had to speak for themselves, I wasn’t gonna be a great advocate for them, I don’t have that in me. I just sort of write it and record it on a cassette and someone would have to steal it from my jeep for the world to hear it… An Old Testament miracle has to happen for me to have any kind of success. I know I’m a blessed guy, I’ve been very fortunate and looked after. I came from a small town, and it was about 40 minutes from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I was too bashful to have gone much further than that. I don’t think I would have gone all the way to Nashville and say, “Hey, listen to my inevitable failure.” But the musicians I played with, they saw some kind of merit and said, let’s get this guy to sing on my record and cut a couple of my songs. Without ever really asking anybody to listen to me, I’ve been thriving at the business for 45-plus years, and I can’t count that as anything except a blessing.
Jimmy Buffett has such a huge catalog, and such a long career. What are the challenges of being in such a band? There are certainly challenges, but it starts at the top. Jimmy’s 68. You think of acts that are touring that are Jimmy’s age, you can count on one hand the ones are that age that don’t feel like a nostalgia show. Anybody that’s touring, there’s maybe a half dozen acts that tour that you say, this is something cool that’s happening right now, this is not just reminding me of songs I made out with my girlfriend when I was a teenager. Jimmy’s shows don’t feel like that, it feels like something that’s cool that’s happening right now, and that comes from now. He is truly happy to jump up on stage to sing “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Whether that’s his most meaningful work or not, he is very happy and grateful that it connected to seven figures of people, who, whether he puts a record out or not, are gonna get up and get a babysitter and come to see what he’s got to show them. They’re gonna tailgate like it’s a Superbowl. He wants them to feel like it’s worth it. He understands that from a P.T. Barnum standpoint as well as from an artist and songwriter standpoint. He’s an underrated writer. He’s got some great songs and he’s gonna play them exactly the way he wanted to play them and he’s gonna be fired up about it. He’s not just reading it off index cards, he’s excited to congregate, to have a one-off event. Whatever the challenges are, that overcomes it.
The Coral Reefer shows are famous for being big parties. Does the band party much? The audience is rocking harder than us at this point, but as far as the band enjoying playing….Jimmy fell off the stage and busted his head in Australia a few years back. We all tend to think of ourselves as bulletproof, and this happened at the end of the encores, as we were all loaded up in vans. It’s one of those things where we’re riding a wonderful ride that’s easy to take for granted. Once that happened to him, it happened to us as well. We all went: We’re really part of something magical and special and we should enjoy every moment of it, and we’ve cranked up the volume on enjoying what’s happening more ever since then. It made us appreciate the privilege more, and I believe the band enjoys playing more. Jimmy’s never put as much time into the show as he does now. He’s known as a guy in a hammock having a cocktail 24 hours a day, but he’s up in the morning trying to think about how to make the show better, and if anyone has any notion of how to make the show better he wants to hear it. He’s hungry in a way you’d expect a 20-year-old guy with a record deal would be, he’s just enjoying what he does and wants to make it better.
He earned his chops playing in singer-songwriter bars, listening rooms, or more likely not-listening rooms, and because he knows how to do that he’s learned — and not many people can learn what he can do — which is to make 25,000 people feel like they have something intimate and uniquely individual. He can make a giant crowd feel special, like he’s talking to them. That’s a gift. It’s a skill also, but it’s a gift. They don’t make a treadmill to exercise that muscle.
Your new album features a song, “With a Straight Face,” about gay children, a subject not often sung about in country music. Songwriters are generally compassionate folks, but sometimes they withhold some compassion because of the response of their potential audience. I don’t want to upset anybody, but growing up some of my really close friends happened to be gay, and some of my really close friends are wonderful, good-hearted, really conservative religious north Mississippi folks who for whatever reason chose to withhold that good-hearted aspect of themselves and my friends who were gay.
I don’t like to see anybody oppressed for any reason and I don’t like to see anybody judged. I’m not qualified to be a spokesperson for any cause but wanted to let people know I had some heart. You may remember a couple years back there was a same sex couple in Mississippi, about 25 miles from my home town, who wanted to go to their high school prom. I think it ended up playing out that Ellen DeGeneres and Morgan Freeman funded a prom because they were gonna cancel the whole prom. But it’s easy to judge people that judge them, and in a lot of cases they’re wonderful people and they decide to withhold that compassion occasionally. I’m an advocate of not withholding it. Don’t sit there with a bunch of compassion next to someone who needs it and not give it to them.
What’s next for you? I’m gonna try to be a better advocate of my own work, AKA Nobody. My work with Jimmy, that never stops. He dreams up new stuff all the time. I like to say all of his dreams came true by 1985 and he’s been making crap up since then, but it continues to be a joy, and I don’t imagine that stopping. I try to help the kids coming up through the Shoals and give them my studio and be Johnny Music Seed and be involved in making better music getting better. I don’t care if I’m writing or playing a Mac show or a Jimmy show, I’m just a lucky guy who gets to do this and call this a job, so the days aren’t very different. I don’t really care which job I have tomorrow, whether I’m just going to get cheeseburgers for the musicians who are gonna get to do the work better than I would have done, I get to be part of making music better.
Anything else you’d like to say? The only thing I would add — and it’s relative to your locale, since we talked about mine a little bit — is, I have been lucky enough to have traveled to this country pretty extensively, and where you are is one of the coolest places in the country with some of the most compassionate people. I’m not smart enough to pander, but I’m grateful for any opportunity to visit. I thank you all for helping me put aside my nature and help promote my work.