Songwriter Mac McAnally on New 'Southbound' LP, Touring With Jimmy Buffett

Acclaimed songwriter-producer returns to put an orchestral spin on some of his most familiar songs

For two weeks in August 1977, Mac McAnally occupied a spot on the lower reaches of Billboard pop Top Forty with an insightful bit of Life 101 called "It's a Crazy World." Written when he was just 16, he was 19 when the song hit. As a country songwriter, he has penned hits for  Alabama  ("Old Flame"), Sawyer Brown ("Thank God for You"), Ricky Van Shelton ("Crime of Passion") and Steve Wariner ("Precious Thing"), among many others. McAnally's biggest country hit as an artist, "Back Where I Come From," would be cut twice by Kenny Chesney, including as a live track on his 2000 Greatest Hits LP. In addition to his songwriting, which earned him election into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007, McAnally has been active as a producer and backing musician for decades. He holds the record for the most CMA Musician of the Year trophies, collecting eight in a row from 2008 to 2015, with another nomination this year. A longtime member of Jimmy Buffett's mighty Coral Reefer Band, a gig McAnally holds to this day, the latest project the humble, self-effacing Mississippian is involved in is one reaping rewards of an entirely different sort. 

His just-released LP Southbound is McAnally's first-ever exploration of the songs in his extensive catalog, couched in an orchestral setting. An adventurous album brimming with heart, soul and wit, it was conducted by University of Southern Mississippi Music Director Jay Deanand features student musicians from the Hattiesburg-based school's symphony orchestra as well as McAnally's fellow members of the Coral Reefer Band. While the album beautifully illustrates Mississippi's rich cultural heritage, McAnally is also using its release to help his home state, which has the largest number of documented food-insecure individuals in the country. Proceeds from the LP are being split between the University of Southern Mississippi's music program and Extra Table, the charitable organization founded by acclaimed Hattiesburg restaurateur Robert St. John.


Did you feel pretty confident early on that the concept of an orchestral record of your songs would actually work this well? Or did you have some doubts?

Well, there's no aspect of me as a recording artist that is not pretty well-doubted! [Laughs] I'm a bashful guy, and I'm not the most self-confident by nature, but this batch of songs, particularly maybe in four or five cases, these were songs that all my life I've really wanted another shot at singing. Partially because I'm such a bashful guy, I've never been the most confident singer. I'm more of a background singer. 

How did you land on the idea of supporting Extra Table in particular?

It's a Mississippi-centric charity, and that's where I come from. I have a few songs talking about how proud I am to be from there. And they're on this record, for the most part. I am very proud to be from Mississippi, but the reality is that my home state is either number 50 or number one in most things. We are one of the poorest states and because of that, according to the statistics, there are about six to 800,000 under-nourished… "food-insecure" is the term that they're using these days. 

The record also benefits the university's music program. Why was that important for you?

Jay Dean has, for 30 years, been bringing not only the best players that he can find in Mississippi, but he's been bringing players up from South America that came out of really abject poverty, that are really gifted musicians. He's been sort of a pipeline for Brazilian and Chilean, quite a few South American musicians, over 300 now. So this orchestra that played on this is made up of students, and some faculty that are those people who have been through his program. 

You also have some of your Coral Reefer Band comrades on the album. Where did you do the recording?

We went down to Mississippi and recorded the orchestra down there and we recorded at my studio down in Muscle Shoals. The Coral Reefer Band is like a second family to me, so everything about this felt good. Mr. Buffett is an alumnus of Southern Miss, and that helped him loan me the rest of the Coral Reefer Band. All the good will that went into every aspect of this, I believe that shines through. Even in the [LP] cover work. I was talking to the girls that did the cover about wearing old feed-sack shirts that were made out of flour sacks and, in some cases, out of old fertilizer sacks. Out of the Depression, that's what folks made their clothes out of. And they took that conversation and made the cover look sort of like an old feed-sack. I realize that's a minute detail, but just the fact that everybody involved in this got that involved in it, to me, makes it that much richer of an experience.

Why do you think it is that Mississippi really engrains itself into your artistry and has given us so many other great creative people in music and literature?

Spare time is our major export. [Laughs] There's a lot of time to make stuff up in Mississippi, so we've always been a healthy field for the creative folks, for novelists and for music writers and musicians, from Elvis to Jimmie Rodgers, from B.B. King to Howlin' Wolf to Faith Hill. Then you've got William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham, Larry Brown, Greg Iles. For one of the poorest states and one of the technically least-educated states, we do throw out some special creators. I joke about it, but I actually do think that part of what it is, at least for me, is growing up in what I consider a genuine community. You have a chance to see how everything you do affects everybody in your world. Sometimes, in a world of seven billion people, you can't see that. You can't see how what you do adversely or positively affects somebody out of your own vision. But in a small town, there is a ripple that goes out from everything you do. 

Do you think the Nashville songwriting community is like that as well? Or is it a little too competitive?

It's probably possible to make a case for seeing that either way. I see it in the way that I grew up. I love being of use to my friends here in town, who sometimes I'm able to help with a song, but I don't ever want someone to cut one of my songs at the expense of somebody else. I just don't see it as that kind of competition. I think if we all do it as good as we can do it, good things are going to happen to good songs. But I also know that you can look at what's going on and say it's certainly a smaller pie, getting sliced more times, if you want to look at it analytically, from a stat sheet. It's a tougher time to start than it was when I started. So, honestly, I feel especially moved to try to pay it forward, to a generation of kids that are getting underway now. Because I was such a bashful kid, I could actually not start right now. I'd be dead in the water. I never would have had the nerve to come to Nashville and say, "Listen to me, I'm talented." I didn't even ever say that to my parents. I came through a little window a long time ago, that was probably the only window I could have ever gotten through.

What do you think is the greatest thing you've learned as a member of the Coral Reefer Band?

Well, it's a fundamental thing, but Jimmy's whole organization is just a giant rolling ball of goodwill. People come to see what he's doing because they know they're gonna enjoy it, and they know he's gonna enjoy it. Jimmy turned 70 last Christmas, and you think about who's touring at that age, and most people who are touring at that age are doing it because they have to do it, that's the only way they can generate enough money. There's nothing wrong with that. We're musicians. But Jimmy hasn't needed any money for a long time. He loves playing music for people. He loves making people happy. I work hard to make my songs as good as I can. But he makes it so easy to appreciate how much it means to throw that goodwill from the stage to the crowd, and for them to throw it back to you. It’s an energy source. It doesn't matter if it's a surf bar or if it's a baseball stadium or if it's he and I at Walter Reed Hospital playing for people that got banged-up in the war.

One thing you can certainly hear in this record is Randy Newman and his influence on you. That must go back a long way for you?

No question about it. He was a hero of mine from the very beginning, from when I first heard his work. The particular time when I began making records in the late Seventies, we had the same agency and I was blessed to be Randy's opening act for, oh, about a year, around the time he had "Short People." The two of us were traveling on planes to different hotels. He was truly a hero of mine and he lived up to that status. He's brilliant. He's wickedly funny and there's no better writer than I think he is. I would have been influenced just by listening to the records, let alone from getting to be around him and tour with him. I'm certain that more of that permeated what I do to a degree that my limited abilities can absorb because he's much more thorough in music theory than I am. I hear stuff in my head that I have to go chase and figure out, and he hears stuff in his head that he understands as soon as he hears it. We're quite different in that regard. But at least he gives me some things to aspire to.

A couple of the most fun songs on the record are "Blame It onNew Orleans," which is pretty self-explanatory and "Zanzibar," which is sort of like an "I've Been Everywhere"-type song. Where did the jazz and swing influence come from for you?

Those are both just a joy to play. The New Orleans influence I definitely owe quite a bit to Jimmy because he sort of introduced me to the music of New Orleans… and the food. I was a trombone player in school early, so that whole sort of ragtime aspect of things is very appealing to me. And "Zanzibar"… I'm a big Django Reinhardt, acoustic swing fan, and my dad came back from World War II with a bunch of big band stuff, Glenn Miller and the Dorseys, so his record collection had that sort of stuff going on. 

Have you been to Zanzibar?

I've never been. I've gotten to go to a lot of places that I mention rapid-fire in the bridge of the song, but I haven’t been to Zanzibar yet. Maybe I’m lobbying to write a tourism jingle for Zanzibar. That’s my three daughters doing the sort of Andrews Sisters backgrounds on that record. They’re bashful like their dad. They've all got beautiful voices, but they're really shy about singing. I enjoyed the opportunity to trick them into singing together on that one. It's all singing McAnallys on that one.