Mac McAnally — Once In A Lifetime (Mailboat Records)
Lyman Corbitt McAnally Jr. is also known as Mac McAnally – not that you’ve likely heard of either one of them. Such is the fate of so many of the most important people in the music business: the songwriter. Without quality songs, there really wouldn’t be much to listen to. And the Alabama-born McAnally has written so many top songs and hit singles as to more than recommend him. Many of them have made a lot of money (if not fame) for a Who’s Who of musical performers. Was it because of their ability to deliver the song? Or was it the quality of the songwriting itself? You be the judge – but only after immersing yourself into his solo catalogue of 15 releases.
Writing his first song (“People Call Me Jesus”) at age 15, McAnally got the bug, after growing up playing piano and singing in the Belmont First Baptist Church. Becoming a session musician for Muscle Shoals didn’t hurt as he learned the ropes and made the most of his potential, formulating his path as a full-fledged singer-songwriter. Never confident as a singer, McAnally writes around his guitar playing, which may account for the appeal of his particular writing style. Nashville was the first to respond as his work earned the attention of Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, Sawyer Brown, Jimmy Buffet, Charley Pride and Alabama. As a player, he’s rubbed shoulders in sessions for Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs and Mary Chapin Carpenter. He’s spent the 20+ years touring as part of Buffet’s Coral Reefer Band. Yet, his personal growth as a songwriter has also been influenced by his role as producer – a title earned from recording projects he’s helmed for Skaggs, Chris LeDoux and even Little Feat.
A true storyteller, McAnally exudes a warmth to his work like few other Nashville songwriters. Fall into the lively first track with its rollicking rhythm, killer chorus and the state of being alive in 2021. Yet this state of simply ‘being’ is buttressed with a musical backdrop designed to elicit uncontrollable foot-tapping, which seems his raison d’être. Muscular acoustic and electric guitar join Wurlitzer piano and Jim Mayer’s bass to showcase each and every carefully-crafted composition.
Master of the earworm, the perky “Almost All Good” has the power to raise the dead – with its upbeat, percussive attack, its plays on words and jaw-bending guitar work, complete with McAnally’s skill at transforming simple words like ‘say’ and ‘wood’ into 30-score Scrabble® selections. McAnally’s tongue is firmly in cheek, acknowledging our evolving behavior in these changing times, while nobody’s saying much of anything. And before you dig in to discover who’s playing the rich array of instruments, realize that, with Eric Darken on all percussion, McAnally contributes acoustic and electric guitar, Wurlitzer, bass, mandolin (and don’t I hear harmonica?) in addition to his trademarked, hearty vocals.
“Once In A Lifetime” is one of those songs that you can’t get out of your head – even days after first hearing it. That’s McAnally’s true gift. Literally falling out of a conversation with vocalist and co-writer, Drake White, the key phrase is turned into a full-fledged celebration, given the skills of both vocalists. McAnally’s use of an electric 12-string simply elevates the gorgeous interplay between the singers.
Known for his ability to apply his sense of humor to his lyrics, McAnally’s “First Sign Of Trouble” is a great example of this skill – however, more novelty than masterpiece, such levity works best live. The lyrics will generate a smile and the supporting fretwork on acoustic guitar is truly mesmerizing, yet consider this a mere palette cleanser between his stronger efforts.
Leaning on his lower register, vocally, “That’s Why They Call It Falling” opens with a taste of his acoustic guitar prowess and, armed with a superior hook in its chorus, continues to dazzle, both lyrically and musically. The harmonies, alone, lift “Changing Channels” into the stratosphere while McAnally’s gut string guitar work is pure splendor, accentuated further by Eric Darken’s deft percussion. This is a standout track which single-handedly redefines the word ‘lush’ – a quality song that some might say is like ‘how they used to write’. Interesting to realize how McAnally’s lyrics have the ability to penetrate even further, given the high caliber of music constructed around them.
The ‘whistle while you walk’ feel of “Just Right” seems more a tourism ad for Key West, Florida, its buoyant lyrics, B3 and steel drums rendering the bubbly, good times feel of a Buffet outing. Covering any Beatles’ classic can prove disastrous in the wrong hands, yet this blisteringly-beautiful cover of “Norwegian Wood” is this disc’s highlight. Playing an octave mandolin accented by Darken’s distinctive percussion, this is a brilliant reinvention.
From the offbeat use of electric sitar intro of “Good Guys Win,” the track explodes with percussion as McAnally unleashes his talents on a bevy of stringed instruments, including octave mandolin, baritone guitar and bass. Riding on Paul Franklin’s heart-tugging pedal steel, “Just Like It Matters” features McAnally adding both piano and acoustic guitar to deliver on a weeping paean to splitting up, with lyrics digger far more deeply than is traditional.
“Brand New Broken Heart” ups the ante, musically, lest there be any doubt of McAnally’s depth across all genres. Aubrey Haynie’s energetic fiddle-playing and McAnally’s driving acoustic guitar join Steve Nathan’s piano to arrive in a bluegrass place where drummer, Greg Morrow, and Glenn Worf’s warm bass transform the notion of ‘heartbreak’ into something you might like to try.
Closing with “The Better Part of Living,” McAnally’s lower register once again sets up an airy chorus, with yet another hook bolted to the floor by McAnally’s own electric guitar, adding his own piano, acoustic guitar, bass and B3 to the mix. This is a songwriter who’s in high demand and who, for his own sake, can do it all. It poses the question of whether or not a seasoned pro like McAnally writes for himself or for others, first. It’s clear he’s capable of covering both bases and, from the impressive number of heavy hitters on this release alone, you can’t help but lean towards the former.
If the man couldn’t sing a note, his regular selection as the CMA’s Musician of the Year would make him worthy of your attention. The fact that this “I’m not a fancy guitar player” is also adept at fitting each song with vocals that resonate with a downhome honesty and earnest sincerity only serves to further underline his ability as a true songwriter. Each vision is fully realized and – well, good luck erasing the resulting hooks guaranteed to take up permanent residence inside your head.