In some ways, award-winning songwriter, instrumentalist, producer and artist Mac McAnally is a paradox.
He is beyond dispute one of the most respected musicians of our time. His peers have made that clear by honoring him as CMA Musician of the Year for an unprecedented eight years in a row and electing him to both the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame and Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.
Yet he is also one of the softest-spoken and self-effacing figures anywhere on the public stage. In fact, despite decades of recording countless sessions, releasing solo albums, and writing a parade of hits that include No. 1 singles for Kenny Chesney, Alabama, Sawyer Brown and Shenandoah, Mac seems a little uncomfortable in the spotlight. His reluctance to toot his own horn is a welcome anomaly these days - and that makes his accomplishments even more impressive.
For all that he has achieved, one dream remained elusive. Typically, it was Mac's altruism, rather than any drive toward greater fame, that made it happen.
Southbound is Mac's 16th album. It's packed with a generous selection of 16 tracks. And it's his first to feature his songs arranged for symphony orchestra. Recorded with the FestivalSouth orchestra conducted by Jay Dean and a rhythm section that includes Mac's colleagues in Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band, Southbound doesn't just give Mac's writing, instrumental skills and expressive vocals the attention they deserve. It also serves several worthy causes that speak personally to him: Extra Table, which brings food to the hungry in Mississippi, and the University of Southern Mississippi's music program.
The idea traces back to a performance by Mac at a fundraiser for another charity four or five years ago. The event was hosted by Robert St. John, Mississippi's top chef for three consecutive years, Mississippi Restauranteur of the Year and a generous supporter of charities too.
"While we were stuck in a dressing room while they were doing their silent auction, Robert started telling me about Extra Table, which he founded in my home state for underprivileged kids, of which we have many," Mac remembers. "Mississippi has always been one of the three poorest states in the union - usually the poorest. I said, 'If there's anything you ever need, let me know.' And he said, 'Oh, I'm about to.'"
Mac laughs and continues. "He told me about a fundraiser they do every year down in Hattiesburg, where he lives. He said, 'I'd love to hear some of your songs with orchestra.' And I said, 'Let's talk.'"
The marriage of large ensembles and popular songs had always intrigued Mac. His father's collection of big band jazz records planted that awareness. So did the countrypolitan classics he heard over the signals that trickled intermittently into the family radio back in Belmont, Mississippi. He also bought copies of the classical LPs that band directors at his school would sell when they were replaced each year. "Football and basketball were more important in the Southeast," he explains, with a smile.
So Mac accepted St. John's invitation and began contacting associates who could write orchestral arrangements, starting with Charles Rose of the Muscle Shoals Horns. Then he combed through his catalog for songs that would adapt well to the project. Plus a few that would be more of a challenge.
"When I wrote 'It's Easy' [from Cuttin' Corners, 1980] I was trying to write a classical piece," he notes. "So that lent itself very well to orchestration. But then I thought it might make for a better show if we added some songs that maybe didn't adapt so naturally - something like 'Junk Cars' [from Live and Learn, 1992]. That lets the orchestra be playful and brings variety to the show too."
Mac shared his vision with each arranger as they worked out the string and horn parts. For certain songs, the guidepost was Randy Newman, with whom Mac had toured early in his career and whose orchestral settings he especially appreciated. He'd indicate details from his original recordings, perhaps a guitar or bass line, to transfer to other instruments, either suggesting harmonies to go with those parts or leaving them up to his collaborators.
When the charts were done, Mac premiered them live at a fundraising event with the FestivalSouth Orchestra, also directed and conducted by Jay Dean. After that performance and maybe half a dozen others that followed, he recalls, "Somebody said, 'Hey, this is good! We should record this!'"
So they did. Consisting of students plus some faculty and alumni from the Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, the FestivalSouth orchestra illuminates and complements the material brilliantly throughout Southbound. Its minimal presence on "All These Years" [Live and Learn] and "Miracle" [Knots, 1994] conveys each lyric's sad intimacy. "On Account of You" [Down By the River, 2009] reflects Mac's fondness for Randy Newman's sound, though with a more positive message. The instrumentation swaggers playfully throughout "On the Line" [Nothin' But the Truth, 1983], tootles like a French Quarter jam throughout "Blame It on New Orleans" and threads an exotic theme around the seductive dance beat of "Zanzibar" [AKA Nobody, 2015].
In its variety, craftsmanship and emotional depth, Southbound would be a jewel in any artist's crown. But again, characteristically, Mac doesn't see it that way. Above all, to this son of Mississippi, it's a way to further enhance the lives of others through the channels that drew him originally to the project.
"One hundred percent of the artist and producer portions of Southbound go to the music program at the University of Southern Mississippi and to Extra Table," he says. "For every dollar that Extra Table gets, Robert St. John buys and distributes two dollars worth of food directly to kids who need it most. Some of them only eat what they get from school; they don't really get fed over the weekend."
Acknowledging that Southbound reflects his concern for the needy in his home state, Mac adds, "I don't believe it's limited to Mississippi. These songs apply to the South in general and beyond as well in the same way that William Faulkner wrote about universal concerns by focusing on only one county in Mississippi. And I hope its impact will linger beyond my lifetime in the same sense that a good Christmas album never gets old."