The only problem with Shane McAnally’s cozy new office on Music Row is the infestation of plaques.
He’s running out of wall space, so gold and platinum records line the floors, obscuring the baseboards. “I used to want these so bad,” he says, surveying the clutter. “Now we’re getting, like, four a day.”
Nashville is a city that loves to give itself awards, and McAnally wouldn’t mind snatching a few more when the industry hands out its most coveted trophies at Wednesday’s 47th Annual CMA Awards. The 39-year-old songwriter co-wrote Miranda Lambert’s punchy “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Kacey Musgraves’s paralyzing “Merry Go ’Round,” making him the only guy on the block with two nominations for song of the year.
This stretch of Music Row — a storied songwriting salt mine that looks like any old leafy residential boulevard in town — is quiet on Sunday afternoon. But this neighborhood is still entrenched in a conflict that’s been raging for generations — the war between real country music and the commercial stuff.
McAnally’s songs are brilliantly, unabashedly both.
“Look, I’m a commercial-minded songwriter. I’m here to make a living and be on the radio. But radio is still really dominated by something else,” he says. “I just think there’s more. . . . I’d like for the top 20 songs to not only be that.”
He’s talking about the feel-great party anthems that have dominated the charts this year — songs where the beers are always frosty, the trucks are always muddy, everyone is 19 and the singer is always a dude.
McAnally isn’t trying to shut down the party with his ballads about longing, vulnerability and bad-idea booty calls — he just wants to coexist. And having co-written seven No. 1 country singles in the past three years, he is.
He didn’t do it alone. Rising alongside a tight clique of co-writers — including Brandy Clark, who released her stunning solo debut last month — McAnally has helped write monster hits (Lady Antebellum’s “Downtown,” the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two”) and superlative sleeper cuts (Ashley Monroe’s “Two Weeks Late,” Randy Rogers Band’s “Fuzzy”) — all very different songs with varying degrees of bittersweetness.
“That internal ache is the starting point of country music,” McAnally says. “If it’s a happy song and I can still feel sad in it? That’s my favorite. Pop does that a lot right now. Both of Miley Cyrus’s singles, “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball.” [Katy Perry’s] “Teenage Dream.” . . . Those songs are sad to me, even though they’re, like, UNGH-UNGH-UNGH!” (He pumps his fist overhead like Arsenio Hall.)
McAnally is sharp-witted, shrewd, smart. Just the right amount of cocky. He’s also gay and out, but feels that the reductive “gay country songwriter” tag that’s been pinned to his lapel says more about the media’s perception of Nashville than it does about him.
After a New York Times headline declared that McAnally was “Out and Riding High in Nashville” in May, a young, gay songwriter told McAnally he’d never dreamed of coming out in this town.
“And I told him, ‘Great. Now you’re here and the only thing you can do is out-write everybody else,’ ” McAnally says.
McAnally grew up in Mineral Wells, Tex., and spent his childhood devouring country radio and MTV. “I always loved the shiniest, most popular thing,” McAnally says. “I always loved Willie Nelson, but I loved the songs that Willie made famous.”
He came to Nashville in 1994 with dreams of superstardom, but after his 2000 debut album went thud, he moved to Los Angeles and eventually boomeranged back to the country music capital in 2007, out and ready to write. Nashville felt claustrophobic his first time around. Not anymore.
“When I lived here in ’94, I wasn’t even out to me, and I certainly wasn’t going to figure that out here, being a country music singer,” McAnally says. “Now, things are different. But maybe I’m different. I don’t know why I was so closeted. I grew up in a small town in Texas. I had the hangover from that. It wasn’t Nashville. I haven’t felt anything but accepted here. And the success helps. Because what are they gonna say?”
That success came quickly, in country music years. No other form of pop has a slower metabolism — and McAnally’s fast-but-slow ascent is strong evidence of that. He says it takes roughly two years for a song to travel from his guitar to the radio. During that time, publishers shop the song around town. An artist puts it on layaway. Maybe they get around to recording it. Or maybe they bail and the process starts over. The music moves slowly and change can feel glacial. But it’s happening.
“I’m optimistic,” McAnally says of country music’s future. “How could I complain? I have had so much critical praise with what I’ve worked on. I’ve gotten on the radio, and so many people that get critical praise don’t.”
The biggest hurdle McAnally faces now is his own happiness. He and his husband — the two got married in Mexico in September 2012 — are busy raising their two young children, a daughter and a son. Last year, he was writing a staggering eight songs every week, meaning those plaques will keep showing up at the office. Life’s brooding dramas feel very far away.
“I have a hard time being happy, and I think a lot of creative people suffer with that when life gets real happy,” he says. “I’m affected by things that are really sad and I’m just not very sad right now. . . . I’m a creative person who had a lot of dark time in my life. I can still get to it, I can still go to a relationship or a time when things weren’t great. But it’s getting further and further from me. So what choice should I make? I really like being happy.”
Maybe he could try transposing all that domestic bliss into melody?
“Write a song about my kids right now?” he asks. “I’d rather just hang out with them.”
In Wednesday’s Washington Post: Brandy Clark is one of country music’s most talked-about new artists. So why is she struggling to get her music heard?