How does a song get from Shane McAnally’s guitar to country radio? Explaining the complex process in the making of a country hit.

As the rest of American pop music speeds up, Nashville still takes its time. Turn on your radio and you’ll hear new music that was actually written years ago.

Sitting down for an interview with The Washington Post on Sunday, Shane McAnally — the red-hot country songwriter who helped pen Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry Go Round” and Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” — explained the long, convoluted journey that a song makes from his fingertips, through Music City’s time-worn machinery, to the listener’s ear. It’s an odyssey that can take four years. Or longer.


Shane McAnally performs during the 51st annual ASCAP Country Music Awards at Music City Center on November 4, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Nashville, of course, has operated this way for decades — and things can move faster for other songwriters. But here’s how it works for the most exciting talent currently working on Music Row.

THE SONGWRITING

Like most songwriters in Nashville, McAnally works with a web of collaborators. His immediate circle includes Brandy Clark, Josh Osbourne, Trevor Rosen, Matt Jenkins and Matt Ramsey, and extends to Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Jimmy Robbins and Ashely Gorley. Their writing sessions are gruelingly frequent. In 2012, McAnally was writing as many as eight songs a week.

The only way to maintain that sprinting pace is through co-writing. “I wake up every day thinking, ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’ There’s nothing left to say and I’m completely dry,” McAnally says. “And then I get in the room with somebody and they say the right thing, and I’m on again.”

THE WORK TAPE

The song is written. It’s time to make a work tape. “Some songs get recorded on [the strength of] a decent work tape — which is just guitar and vocals,” McAnally says. “But it’s not that common anymore. Production has become such a part of it. You’re up against things that sound like records.”

The boom in home recording technology has allowed songwriters to turn simple work tapes into finely-polished demos, giving artists a better idea of what their final product might sound like. To compete, McAnally will book time at a recording studio: “We’ll set up a demo session and try to knock out eight or ten songs and make them sound as close as we can to a record with the money and time we have.”

THE PLUGGERS

Once a song is ready to be shopped around town, publishers step in. “They have people called ‘pluggers’ and they’re the song’s agents,” McAnally says. “They have meetings constantly with A&R people and artists and producers.”

McAnally typically writes a song with two other writers, whose publishers will each have at least three pluggers, meaning there’s always a minimum of nine people hustling to find a song a home.

THE HOLDS

“The next step would be a hold,” McAnally says. “It’s just an oral commitment that the song is in the pack.”

Artists typically keep McAnally’s songs on hold for six months to a year. “And if they’re passionate about it and it’s the right artist, you wait,” he says.

Things start to get especially messy when two — or more — artists ask to put the same song on hold. “That’s the thing that’s so hard to navigate,” McAnally says. “There’s no real right to the song. Nothing’s in writing and nobody’s paid for anything. People definitely come saying, ‘We really want it.’ And then you have another camp saying over here, ‘So do we.’ Sometimes they’ll [counter that] and say things like, “Well, we’ll make it the first single.”

That leads to intricate, prolonged negotiations. “It’s all done on handshakes, here,” McAnally says. “[The songwriter] can still ultimately say, ‘We’re also gonna let such-and-such record it and whoever puts it out first wins.’ You’ll ruin your relationship with that person. But only until they wanted something of yours again.”

THE RECORDING

Paperwork starts getting signed and money starts changing hands when a song is recorded. And if a plugger waits to pitch a song to an artist right before they’re about to head into the studio, they can avoid the dreaded hold process.

That’s what happened with McAnally and “Downtown,” a single from Lady Antebellum that topped the country charts earlier this year. “‘Downtown’ is the fastest song I’ve ever had on the radio,” he says. “It was written in October of last year [and was released in January]. It was the first single, they were cutting it right away. It was all timing.”

THE SECOND CHANCE

Plenty of songs get written, pitched, recorded, released — and then they fizzle. McAnally co-wrote “Fuzzy,” a terrific single from the Randy Rogers Band’s durable new album, “Trouble,” but it didn’t make a massive dent on the radio –- which means that another artist down the line might pick it up, dust it off and make it their own.

“It still hasn’t really seen what I think is gonna be its biggest moment,” McAnally says. “I believe that song will get re-recorded by someone who can get national airplay. I’m not saying Randy Rogers can’t get national airplay. He just couldn’t with that song.”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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