Top Country And Pop Songwriter Shane McAnally Talks About Writing His Hit Songs And Lyrics

Shane McAnally
Shane McAnally

Hit Nashville songwriter and producer Shane McAnally is at a covetous place in his career. Vying for a total of four Country Music Association (CMA) awards in November as a songwriter and producer, McAnally competes against himself for Song of the Year with Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids” and Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time.” As a producer, he was nominated for Single of the Year for “Take Your Time” and Album of the Year for Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material.

McAnally was in a similar enviable position at last year’s CMA Awards when he won the 2014 Song of the Year for his co-writing credit with Musgraves and Brandy Clark on “Follow Your Arrow.”  In 2013, he also had two tunes, Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round”  competing for Song of the Year. McAnally now has a total of nine Song of the Year nominations from the CMA.

Even more honors may be in store for McAnally, because he recently co-wrote the acclaimed Keith Urban hit, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”

“These are my wildest dreams,” McAnally said. “The fact that the people that I work with every day and all these people in this town have shown me this kind of love and given me these sort of opportunities, I can’t say enough. I feel beyond blessed.”

“Merry Go Round” was the Country Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammy Awards, and that same year the Academy of Country Music named McAnally Songwriter of the Year.

McAnally has undergone a huge career overhaul since his first move to Nashville at age 19. He was fortunate to land a solo artist deal with Curb Records but only had moderate success with three charted singles (“Say Anything”, “Are Your Eyes Still Blue” and “Run Away”). He tossed in the towel for a few years and moved away from Nashville, but when he returned as a tunesmith, McAnally scored his first chart-topper with Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You.” Since then, he has enjoyed the view quite frequently from the top of the charts with Luke Bryan’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “Alone With You” by Jake Owen, Chesney’s “Come Over,” “Wild Child,” and “American Kids,” The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” “Say You Do” by Dierks Bentley, and Hunt’s “Leave the Night On” and “Take Your Time.”

We are pleased to do this new interview with Shane McAnally. He talks about the stories behind some of his biggest hits, how he backed into record producing, his greatest strength as a writer, and why he has a never-say-die attitude toward music.

BC: What it’s like to have all this success hitting you? Other songwriters have told me they still can’t relax. Do you feel like you’re able to relax a little bit now?

McAnally: No, not really (laughs). I have the same voices in my head saying, ‘What’s next?’ You work for a really long time and write song after song after song, and nobody pays attention to them. Then, all of a sudden, somehow what’s going on with music aligns up with what you do. This doesn’t happen for everybody. It is something you have to be grateful if it happens, and I’m very grateful for it. Music changes, and tastes change. I certainly am always trying to stay ahead of that. A lot of times that means you’re actually behind it, meaning that, I’m trying to remember what moves me and stay in that [moment] and not worry about chasing things other people are doing. I’m so obsessed and in love with music. I want to keep pushing and telling the truth and trying to tell stories that matter.

Everything I’ve loved, and everything I’ve done has been built on songs. Every morning I go back to the drawing board in hopes that God will walk through the room, and that is sort of why you show up every day.

I’m in the game, and I want to stay in it. I also try to do that without compromising the integrity of what I do.

Kenny Chesney, Shane McAnally & Kacey Musgraves.
Pictured (l-r): Kenny Chesney, Shane McAnally & Kacey Musgraves.


BC: How did Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids” (co-written with Rodney Clawson and Luke Laird) develop?

McAnally: I felt a lot of pressure that day. Those two guys are giants among giants. Although I had written with them both separately, when you can get on your schedule Rodney Clawson and Luke Laird, it’s a day that you want to make matter.

We didn’t have a hook. Nobody had anything that was working. I keep notes in my phone of titles, as a lot of us do. I remember reading off some of them. They weren’t jumping on anything. Those song titles sort of had this common MTV era flashback nostalgia for all of us. These are all like pictures from our childhood. It feels like snapshots. We didn’t want to have a linear story. Every line is an image.

I love when an uptempo [song] actually moves people like that, and Kenny stayed so true to the song. To see him sing it live, it’s so unbelievable to watch the crowd react. You can see on everyone’s faces the memories flashing by.

BC: Speaking of watching the crowd reaction to a song, you’ve been on the artistic side of the business. What’s it like seeing other people perform the songs that you write?

McAnally: I’ve played and was an artist and toured. I never had the opportunity to sit and hear 50,000 people singing lyrics I was a part of. That takes you to a whole ‘nother place. You don’t have to be the person standing on stage to feel the gut punch of that—it takes my breath away. All of a sudden you feel like a part of it. People are singing the words, and if I’m sitting in the audience, they don’t know that I wrote the song. It feels like something bigger than us. It feels like strangers have these common threads. I feel lucky that that’s the business I’m in, and I get to make a living doing that.

BC: What’s the story behind “Take Your Time” for Sam Hunt?

McAnally: I’d always had this idea that I shared with Josh Osborne about writing a song and completing a train of thought that sounded like you were making it up as you went along. What Sam brought to it was the going in and out of the singing where you’re talking but then you’re singing. He’s not rapping. People say that because they don’t know what else to call it. It’s nothing like rapping.

Being able to speak in rhythm that way, to put a melody around telling a story like that and also to bring elements of different genres in without forcing it comes very natural, and I think that’s why it’s working. A lot of people say it’s so pop. How is it working on country radio? Because country music is built on real experience, real songs, real stories. That song obviously has very real elements in it that we all brought to the table from different experiences we have had meeting people, and it shows through. I’m really proud because I haven’t ever heard a song like “Take Your Time.” Being a part of something that you really do feel is groundbreaking is exciting, and that’s because of Sam and because of the risk that he’s willing to take.

Shane McAnally with the group, Old Dominion.
Shane McAnally (third from left) in the studio with the group, Old Dominion.


BC: Another great song that you have out right now is Keith Urban’s hit, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16 (co-written by Ross Copperman & Josh Osborne).” Who came up with that title?

McAnally: We can all take credit for it because much like “American Kids,” we didn’t have a title. Ross Copperman is an incredible engineer/producer and had the track built when Josh and I showed up that day. He gets on a microphone with these tracks—he sings along. He’s not just humming. He’s singing vowel sounds, but if you really pulled it up, it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s no real words there. Sort of in the background of the track, you start to hear words that kind of come out on their own. It is so fun to write with him and show up and say, ‘Did you just say this? Did you just say that? Nope.’ That’s the great thing about collaboration. It’s hearing people say things that they didn’t even mean and being able to say, it sounded like you said this. The Garden of Eden line is like that. It was just syllables.

(Here are the lyrics: And I’m a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock and roll Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old Just another rebel in the great wide open on the boulevard of broken dreams And I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16″)

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a famous painting. It has James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at this bar. A lot of people think that we’re referring to the Green Day song because there’s a song called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” but we’re referring to this painting. We started taking images from that painting and the way it made us feel. It became another song of American nostalgia. Sometimes when you write specific ideas like that, it becomes much more universal. The example of that is that somebody who didn’t grow up in America related to that. It didn’t mean anything to Keith Urban that we had started with this sort of “Born in the U.S.A.” mentality. The truth is the U.S.A. is the real birthplace of the music that the world pays attention to. Everyone grows up in these other countries looking at us and going, ‘I want to be those kinds of kids.’ That is sort of what this song is about. With Ross, Josh, and I coming from different places, the truth is “John Cougar, John Deere, and John 3:16” represent three very different things. John Cougar is that teenage sort of angst of sexuality and growing up and trying to figure yourself out. Then, you have the work ethic of John Deere, and all of our dads going off to work trying to make a living and get by in the ’80s. Then, of course, John 3:16, the religion in this country and us all growing up going to church. Trying to make those three things work together. It was another series of slide show-type songs.

I turned 40 last year, and I have two beautiful little kids. I’m in a really great place. When you’re kind of settled in that way and you grow up being like a musician and wanting to be outside the box, there is this element to settling that can be unsettling. I’ve been experiencing about wanting to write about it more and more, wanting to go over everything in my life and look at my childhood compared to my kid’s childhood. It’s just brought up a lot of memories, so I’m writing a lot of nostalgic songs. This song is a big example of it.

Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally, and Sam Hunt.
Pictured (l-r) Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally, and Sam Hunt.
(Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)


BC: What do you see as your strength as a songwriter?

McAnally: When you try to put your ego out of the way, I want to believe that I’m really strong in melody or really strong in words. The truth is, I’m really good at listening to my own sort of inner dialogue about the past and what I’m feeling. [I tell my co-writers] Look—we can trick ourselves out all we want. We can rhyme things to death…I love to rhyme. I spent three years writing a musical {Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical} with Brandy Clark, and we have rhymed every word known to man with every other word known to man, and that is such a gift of rhythm and onomatopoeia, and rhyme schemes, but at the end of it, I’ve really got to feel something.

I think I’m good at knowing when that is and isn’t. I don’t always know the answer of how to fix it, but I do often know when it’s right or wrong. I think that’s what co-writers would say about me because they trust me in the room enough that if I say, we’re not there yet, they say, then you’ve got to keep going. I don’t always know the answer. I like a line to go by and me—two seconds later—still going wow! It can be two words. Less can be so much more, but I really just want to feel it. At the end of the song I want to have had an experience.

I write so many songs every week that certainly there are ones, that in the moment, that I write and I think, ‘God, this really just ran me over in the best way’ and other people don’t feel that because they don’t have the experience that I had or remember the conversation that we were having. I still feel like I try very hard to stay on top of the feeling of it and making sure it is heart underneath the cool words or the rhymes or the rhythms of it.

BC: In addition to songwriting, you’re doing quite a bit of producing. What do you get out of producing that you don’t receive from songwriting or singing?

McAnally: It wasn’t intentional—I didn’t set out to be a producer. My first year back in Nashville, which was 2009, I had a demo session with some songs that I had written with the same crew that I write with now—Josh Osborne, Trevor Rosen, and Matt Ramsey. I didn’t want to do the demo session by myself because I’d only had songs on other people’s sessions, and I was so scared of having the session that I invited them all to come up and sit with me all day while I recorded these demos. They really built me up and continued to say, you know what you’re doing in here, your instincts are right. You have to trust yourself. They continued to champion me, to the point where I was doing all of our demos for the whole crew. I was producing them really. I started acting as a producer and not even knowing I was doing it.

When I started writing with Kasey Musgraves, I fell into this natural rhythm of making a record together. All of a sudden, I had this tag of producer. I guess it took a bit of my own self-evaluation, saying “Wow! I guess that is what I’m doing.” I didn’t want to sound arrogant because the thing is, if there had been someone who had been a producer for 20 years in town and then they came to me and said, “I’m a songwriter now,” I would say “How are you going to write songs just because you’ve been producing records?” I didn’t want to be on the flip side of that. I respect these guys like Dan Huff and Mark White, Frank Liddell, people who have been producing records for a long time that don’t write songs. I don’t want to show up as a hit songwriter and say now, I know how to do what you guys do. That’s not the case. I’m a very different kind of producer. The artists I ultimately work with are the real producers. I’m more of the editor, and I get to translate to the musicians what these artists are trying to say, which is by definition also what a producer does, but it’s not the technical idea of a producer who can turn the knobs the right way or pick up any instrument like Dan Huff can. I am more of a translator—I just want to make sure that the artist is happy and the sound that they have in their heart, in their mind.

BC: What advice do you have for songwriters? Should they move to Nashville if they want to write country songs?

McAnally: I know there are exceptions to that. There’s the Lori McKenna’s of the world (she lives in Massachusetts and commutes to Nashville). She is immersed in this community and people know her here.

I think that’s the number one thing. How are you supposed to compete with all these songwriters that are on 16th and 17th Avenue every day if you live 1,000 miles away? People send me songs and say, “I want you to get this to George Strait.” I think well, while you’re in Oklahoma on your Plan B, the rest of us went for broke here. I have 100 songwriting friends right here (In Nashville) that I would rather send a song to George Strait for, if I could even send a song to George Strait.

If you have a Plan B, do it. The reason it works out for folks is because they don’t have anything else. I tried everything else in the world because the odds are not in our favor as songwriters, if you want to make a living doing it. If it is just to follow your heart, and that is what ultimately happened to me was that I had to get to this part where I realized about eight years ago, I was literally at a breaking point. I’m going to have to stop chasing money because I’m not making money doing this. So, what? [It] makes me happy. The truth is if I had to wait tables, bartend, work anywhere and support a family that way—which I didn’t have a family at the time thank goodness—if that’s what it took for me to also get to make music, then so be it. I gave up on the idea of letting this be the way I was going to make money, and that was really the first time I started making money.

That’s life. If you can really let go of those things, it’s an interesting thing that you don’t learn probably soon enough.

Prior to that, I was chasing anything I could with a dollar sign on it where it had to do with music. When I let that go and said, music was put in me for a reason—I don’t know if it’s just for my family to listen to—I’m still going to keep making it. When I let go of that attachment is when I got my first cut.

Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited,, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at [email protected].He is also on Google+