Shane McAnally motions up to the stage where Josh Osborne, one of his writing partners, is sitting. It’s a Saturday afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville where McAnally is the featured honoree of the museum’s ongoing Poets & Prophets series. They were going to sing “Merry-Go-Round” when McAnally said it must seem odd that Kacey Musgraves, who was sitting in the audience, wasn’t onstage. He hadn’t given her a heads up he’d be calling on her but then asked her to come up and sing harmony. The elegant Musgraves obliged. Just as she sat down, McAnally disappeared to leave Musgraves and Osborne to sing the song together.
“Welcome to what it’s like with Shane,” Osborne said, deadpan.
Osborne was part of the group of six writers that McAnally reverently calls “The Tribe.” It was a group of struggling songwriters that together came of age when no one else would write with them. It included Brandy Clark, Trevor Rosen, Matthew Ramsey, Matt Jenkins, Josh Osborne, and McAnally. “We really believed and championed each other,” McAnally told museum editor and moderator Michael Gray. Clark now owns the cabin where the group used to gather.
McAnally, who first moved to Nashville 20 years ago, now has a catalogue of 150 cuts that brought him center stage at Poets & Prophets. But in McAnally’s mind, any of the members of “The Tribe” could have been sitting in his seat. The non-stop string of hits began when Lee Ann Womack recorded the song “Last Call.” When Kenny Chesney cut “Somewhere With You,” a song he co-wrote with JT Hardy, it marked McAnally’s first number one song. He had played a lot of shows with Chesney in the Nineties. He marvels at how awesome it is to see people react when Chesney plays it live. “It has a sadness you can’t put your finger on.”
More than twenty years ago, McAnally came to Nashville in his grandmother’s van on a spring break trip, while he was enrolled at University of Texas. He never looked back and dropped out of school, soon striking a publishing deal and releasing an album that cracked the top thirty. But he had a certain script of how things would go that didn’t exactly pan out. Frustrated, he moved to Los Angeles to try and find himself, playing in bars as Shane Mack. He was also coming to terms with his sexual identity.
His grandmother has once taken him to audition in Dallas and the young teenager made it out to Los Angeles to appear on “Star Search.” In the audience sat Shane’s mother, who used to take him and his sister to sing at fairs and opries. It was his mother who took him to Barbara Mandrell’s Gift Shop, where the teenage McAnally made a cassette singing “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”
It was also his mother who inadvertently helped inspire some of his most famous songs including “Mama’s Broken Heart “and “Merry Go ‘Round.” When McAnally went back to Texas on a writing trip, he and Josh Osborne visited her.
“Why are there so many beer cans next door?” he asked about her neighbor’s house.
“They’re selling Mary Kay or Mary Jane or something,” she replied.
McAnally looked at Osborne and the two realized there was an idea. They thought it would be humorous and began speaking every Mary cliché line they could think of. But when they played it for Musgraves, she didn’t see it as humorous. She felt it reflected a strong mood about her hometown that was like the town McAnally grew up in. Musgraves, who was working with Katy Perry at the time, pitched it to her. Perry said she loved it but it was a song that sounded like Kacey should sing.
McAnally could also laugh that his mother helped inspire “Mama’s Broken Heart.” It’s a lighthearted take-off based on a time when his younger sister went through a romantic break-up. Things are a little less crazy than they were at the time, McAnally says of the family with a smile. At one point his mother asked him to stop telling people the song was about her. He couldn’t resist following it up by revealing that when he introduced her to Miranda Lambert, his mother made the point to say, “You know that song is about me.”
In addition to being an ACM Songwriter of The Year, McAnally is also a noted producer in his own right. He says he never thought of himself as a producer, as he lacks the technical skills. It was Musgraves’ faith, he said, that gave him the confidence to stand in front of a band in the studio and use his own voice.
Looking back, McAnally realized he had not come to terms with his own sexual identity when he first emerged on the scene. In retrospect, the stardom that didn’t come his way the first time in Nashville gave him the time to figure it out and not be in the public eye.
Today he is married and the father of two children. It was his husband Michael who was partially responsible for all of the old pictures and demos of a young Shane as his life was replayed.
“I have to come up with a new dream,” he said of his life today, explaining that having children is the greatest thing ever.
Looking back at the old videos, McAnally revealed an array of emotions in his facial expressions and body language. “I just know how scared that kid was,” he said, his eyes tearing. “I wish I could have put my hand on that kid’s shoulder and said it was going to be okay.”