Mac McAnally: 4-time CMA Musician of the Year - ‘I’m the last guy you’re going to get to complain.’
One of the highlights of Mac McAnally’s July 2010 appearance at Norton Auditorium in Muscle Shoals, Ala., came at the meet and greet after the show.
“Jean Lambert, who was my piano teacher, was there that night,” McAnally said during a recent telephone interview. “She came through the autograph line and said, ‘Mac, have you had more lessons? I believe you’ve improved.’”
McAnally, a native of Belmont, Miss., recently released a CD of that performance, “Mac McAnally: Live in Muscle Shoals,” which is a retrospective of his 40-year career in the music business.
The people who run the W.C. Handy Blues Festival in Henderson, Ky., asked the long-time musical director for Jimmy Buffett to record the CD.
“I was honored that they asked me, and I gave it my best,” said McAnally. “I’m bashful by nature. If there’s anyone else on the stage, I turn into the backup guy. I’m happy to stand beside Mr. Buffett or Zac Brown or whoever I’m playing with.”
For this gig, McAnally called upon several of his friends, including fellow Coral Reefer Band members Roger Guth (on drums) and Jim Mayer (on bass), and Duncan Cameron (electric and steel guitar), Jack Pearson (electric guitar), Steve Nathan (piano and keys), with Cindy Walker and Rachel Robinson providing the backup vocals.
“That was a great group of friends,” he said. “I could never afford to take that band out on the road, but to have them for that one night was really special.”
The group was able to bring an easy, laid back feeling to the the stage with only one rehearsal.
“When we first booked it, I thought ‘We’ll go down there, take our time, rehearse, have fun, eat barbecue and do the show,” he said with a laugh. “When it actually came time, we had all gotten really busy so we had one rehearsal, played the show and it was still a magical thing. We just lucked out.”
Luck really has nothing to do with it. McAnally has been a working musician since he was 13.
“My Uncle Flavis McAnally brought me up here to hear some music,” he explains on the CD. “I pretty much played in church until I was 13 years old. A fellow who worked at Mullins Ford here in Muscle Shoals had a little band that played up at the state line. He met with my parents about me playing piano with him at a honky tonk in Iron City, Tennessee. My parents, neither one of which had ever been to a honky tonk or ever planned on going, weren’t hearing much of it.”
But things changed when the persistent Mr. Mullins told the couple their young son could make $250 a week.
“Something in that [part of the] presentation got through to my parents,” he said. “That Friday night I was wearing a lime green leisure suit playing songs I’d never heard on a piano before.”
McAnally said he used time at the honky tonk to learn tunes by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Along the way, he also learned some valuable life lessons.
“You learn a couple of things going straight from the First Baptist Church in Belmont to the Circle E Club in Iron City,” he said. “One is that you’re playing to the same crowd, basically.”
McAnally shares anecdotes like this throughout the CD, on separate tracks.
“That [separated tracks] was actually my notion,” he explained. “People have asked me for years to put intros on [my CDs]. Ten years down the road, you could make a playlist of just music if you wanted to leave out the intros.”
Another favorite moment from that evening happened when McAnally decided to play something not on the set list.
“On the intro to ‘Opinion of Love,’ where I tell the story about the honky tonk, I realized it had been over a year since I had done that song,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘What in the hell am I doing?’ The song is not easy to play. I had broken my middle fingernail, so I felt like I was playing guitar with a piece of bologna. ‘I’m recording live. What am I doing?’”
The audience laughed a lot during the intro, and McAnally does a great job on the tune, so it all worked out.
“Their response and the fact I played it without falling straight down on my face was exhilarating because I was an idiot for trying,” he said with a chuckle. “It was my freak luck for getting away with it.”
The CD includes some of McAnally’s most popular tunes, including “On Account of You,” which he wrote about his mother, “It’s A Crazy World,” “Blame It On New Orleans,” “Last Man Standing” and “It’s My Job,” which were hits for Buffett and “Down the Road,” which was covered by country superstar Kenny Chesney.
He closes the CD with a great arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a rare cover of someone’s else’s song.
“Because I’m not the biggest fan of my own voice, I’ve really never done many cover songs,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ve ever recorded a song I didn’t write.”
In the intro to the number, McAnally says, “I’m not qualified to do a whole lot of R&B, but man, I love it.”
McAnally is currently working his single gig schedule around Buffett’s 2012 tour. McAnally has been touring with the Wizard of Margaritaville for over three decades and is continually amazed by the focus Buffett brings to each project.
“People think he’s just laying in a hammock until it’s time to go on stage,” he said. “I get a set list from Jimmy before 7 a.m. before every show and he wants commentary on it. He puts more thought into his shows that any other 64-year-old guy on the planet. He wants the next show to be better, but he does enjoy himself every single day.”
Life is pretty sweet for McAnally, too.
“I’m the last guy you’re going to get to complain,” he said. “I do my favorite thing in the world most every day.”
When asked to comment on winning CMA’s Musician of the Year four years in a row, McAnally reverts to his humble self.
“It has less to do with what I play and more to do with the fact that I’m totally eaten up with music,” he answers. “That is its own reward, but having four CMAs is really nice, too. My line after winning was, ‘I’m the third best guitar player in my band, so I’m especially grateful.’”
Written by Terry Mathews, The Sulphur Springs News-Telegram Arts Editor