Even if you don’t know Mac McAnally by name, you’ve probably heard him, or heard his music. Not only when he’s backing up Jimmy Buffett as part of the Coral Reefer Band, but from his work with Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Alabama, Zac Brown, Lionel Richie, Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Little Feat, the Allman Brothers, and the list goes on. In fact, he’s won the CMA’s Musician of the Year award a record eight times, and was recently nominated for a ninth.
Mac has also hit the charts himself, and he’s now revisiting his best known songs, this time backed by a full orchestra. The new album, Southbound, had its genesis at a benefit show he performed with some of his Coral Reefer bandmates in his home state of Mississippi. At the event, award-winning chef, Robert St, John, suggested to Mac that he’d love to hear some of his songs with an orchestra. Mac said, “Let’s talk!”
I caught up with Mac to ask him about the new album, how the project came about, and his plans to do some live shows with the orchestra accompaniment.
The orchestral arrangements are reminiscent of old Glen Campbell records. How did the concept, and the arrangements, come about?
I’m a big fan of Glen’s, and I was friends with Glen. His records were definitely influential to me. I’m also a big fan of Randy Newman, and between those two guys, that would have been my influence on the arrangements.
We did a few charts for this benefit show, because it’s an involved process to get charts for an orchestra. We did it at the University of Southern Mississippi, and immediately after the first show, we said we should do this again. So every time we would two or three charts. By the time we had 13 or 14 songs done, we said maybe we should record this stuff! It was all sort of an organic process, it was never part of anybody’s plan to do this.
It turns out the orchestra, as many concerts as they played, they had never worked in the studio, so it was an opportunity for them. And an opportunity for the selfish aspect of me to stand in front of an orchestra and sing. I’m blessed to hear that stuff in my head.
How did you decide what songs it would work best for?
Well, it was a combination. Some of the songs, it was a way to hear them the way I heard them in my head originally, but didn’t have the budget to do. Others, like “Junk Cars,” that’s a song we have fun playing in the show, so if we can reimagine that song after playing it for 20-something years, you want to find a fresh way to look at it. Same with playing “Blame It On New Orleans.” I kinda heard that frame around it. We got to play with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band after a show in New Orleans. It dawned on me that we should try that kind of treatment with that song.
How did you decide on arrangers? Did you play a part in the arrangements?
In two of the cases it was guys I knew. Charles Rose, he still had a chart he did in 1976. It wasn’t for a full orchestra, but he had a string chart, and sort of flushed that out. He had a chance to do a couple things differently than he did then. And he and I know one another very well.
Peter Mayer (guitarist with Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band and accomplished solo artist in his own right) did a beautiful chart for me with “It’s My Job.” It’s one of the most important songs in my repertoire. He did a beautiful chart on that. I used to brag on his knowledge of the fretboard, but it’s not just that, it’s his knowledge of music.
Do you have any plans for more live shows with an orchestra?
You know, it probably can’t practically go out as a tour because of the cost, but it is a situation where we have the charts now. We have three shows planned for next year, and we’ll probably do two more. Two of the three be in Mississippi, there’s one in Muscle Shoals, and there’s talk of doing one in Nashville.
What do you attribute for your success with winning so many CMA awards?
I don’t honestly have much of an explanation for it, but I am grateful and I do feel truly honored. The people who vote for the CMAs are your peers, so the fact that it’s the people that do the same thing as you do is truly an honor, so I’m proud of that. And proud of my parents, who put up with some horrible sounds for years. A lot of people, only their parents like the way they play!
Growing up, what artists influenced you?
Well, I definitely mentioned Randy Newman, and I got to open a lot of shows for Randy, but the Beatles too. I was a Beatle freak. And I was in the band starting in the 5th or 6th grade. I played trombone. Every year the band director would get fired, and my dad and I would buy all the vinyl records they’d have. I wouldn’t say it was a formal education in classical music, and much of it was over my head, but I was definitely influenced by it.
What about modern artists you admire? Any young, up-and-coming ones that have caught your ear?
Almost all artists are young compared to me at this point! Jason Isbell came up and writes great lyrics, and is a great guy. Brandi Clark is a brilliant lyricist, kind of like John Prime. Our pals, the Zac Brown Band, they’re great. I love what they do. I like the fact that music seems to be in good hands going forward. I also like the fact that I don’t feel like I’m finished yet!
For more information on Mac McAnally, his new release and upcoming shows, check out macmcanally.com.