With 38 Number One songs and three Grammy awards under his belt, Shane McAnally is well established as one of the top songwriters in Nashville, but he sure isn’t one to rest on his laurels. After founding a music publishing company, relaunching an iconic record label, and creating an acclaimed stage musical, now McAnally—who recently won the Songwriter of the Year award for the second time from the Academy of Country Music—is expanding his reach to television as a coach on the new NBC show Songland, a role that he describes as “my wildest dream job that I never knew I wanted.”
On the show, aspiring songwriters pitch their compositions on-air to such stars as John Legend, Macklemore, Charlie Puth, and Kelsea Ballerini, while being mentored by McAnally, Ryan Tedder, and Ester Dean. “It’s what I do in my real job every day,” says McAnally, “just with the element of television mixed in. It’s so amazing—we haven’t had an episode yet where someone’s not crying. I’ve tried to have cameras in the writing room before and it’s always shut people down, but this has such heightened adrenaline, it goes off like dynamite every time. The emotion is so high, everyone is so raw—I’ve never encountered anything like it.”
Throughout his career, McAnally has won dozens of awards and accolades including three Grammy awards (out of eight nominations), three ACM awards (nineteen nominations), and a CMA award (twelve nominations). His compositions have been recorded by Kenny Chesney, Kelly Clarkson, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, and countless more. The Academy of Country Music named him Songwriter of the Year in 2014; that same year, he won two Grammys in the Best Country Album and Best Country Song categories for his work on Kacey Musgraves’s debut Same Trailer Different Park. He was named Billboard’s Hot Country Songwriter of the Year in 2015.
In 2017, Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road,” which McAnally co-wrote, broke records by spending 34 straight weeks at Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart; it was subsequently named the Song of the Year at the CMT Artist of the Year Awards. In 2018, he contributed several songs to Musgraves’s Golden Hour, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year, including “Space Cowboy,” winner for Best Country Song. As a producer, McAnally has helped shape the sound of albums by Hunt, Musgraves, Midland, Old Dominion, and more.
But the endless hours in the writing rooms and studios were starting to burn McAnally out. “In the last year, I felt like I had lost some of the passion around it,” he says. “The songs were always top-level—I take it very seriously, it’s still the best job in the world—but I have the freedom to do things for my soul, not just because it’s good for my career, and I had gotten away from that.”
So when he found out about the plans for Songland, he jumped at the idea of exploring new territory. “The more I heard about the show, the more I wanted to do it,” he says. “I met with the producers and they said they were interested in me, but I hadn’t done any television. And I said ‘You should talk to everybody, but I can tell you I’m going to be on this show—it’s my destiny.’ “
McAnally admits he was initially intimidated by the more pop-oriented process of the show, but quickly found that his background offered certain strengths. “My experience is different and brings something else to the show,” he says. “I’m really into lyrics, so I’ve become sort of the lyrics person. And I’m used to always coming up with ideas, so to take someone else’s baby and make it right is so new, but so invigorating.”
Born in Texas, McAnally first came to Nashville in the mid-1990s to try to make it as an artist. He had modest success, with three charting singles on Curb Records, before he moved to Los Angeles and began concentrating on songwriting. He returned to Nashville in 2007 and had his first big hit with Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call,” setting off his historic run as a writer.
In 2017, McAnally joined forces with Sandbox Entertainment CEO Jason Owen to relaunch the Monument Records imprint (once the home of Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson) for Sony Music. “We have such an incredible team that holds down the things I don’t know how to do, so I just get to be creative,” he says. “I develop the artists, so even if I’m not producing, I’m being sent all the songs—weirdly it doesn’t overwhelm me, because I only do what I know how to do.
“Maybe it comes from my own artist career,” he continues, “which didn’t go anywhere but gave me a lot of knowledge and lot of empathy for what they go through. I really feel for how hard it is to be an artist and for how much heartbreak there can be.”
McAnally is also the CEO of the publishing, management, and artist development company SMACKSongs, which he founded in 2012. “We have fifteen writers at SMACK, and I love that young writers we signed years ago are now stacking up Number Ones,” he says. “I know how hard it’s been for them, so to see them stand up at a Number One party means more than it does for me to be there—seeing it happen for other people, that’s what feeds me now.”
Meantime, work continues on Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, a stage production based on the old country variety show, which McAnally co-wrote with Brandy Clark. The show premiered in Dallas and continues to progress with an eye toward Broadway. “I’ve had to learn a lot of patience,” McAnally says. “Compared to theater, we get such quick feedback in the music business. We’re five years in and at year four, somebody said to me ‘We’re halfway there!’ But we’re very much back in the thick of it—it’s campy, fun, almost a country-vaudeville style. And it uses totally different muscles when eighteen songs add up to the story, instead of having to tell a whole story in three minutes.”
McAnally is most proud, though, of his life with his family—his husband, Michael Baum, who serves as President of SMACK, and their two kids. “I’m truly living the dream with them,” he says “I never thought I could have a family or a career in country music being gay, and I really have all of it.”
He points to the Grammy triumph of Kacey Musgraves (a fellow Texan with whom he’s worked since her first single) as a crucial moment for country songwriters. “That was a huge win for Nashville and for writers that aren’t always down the middle,” he says. “My songs with her changed my career even when they weren’t always commercially viable—my commercial success means that people might not always take me seriously, but working with people like Kacey and Brandy, those are songs you’re writing because you have to, not to get rich.”
And now, energized by his work on Songland, Shane McAnally sounds like a songwriter reborn, ready to start the next chapter of a remarkable career. “The show has really reminded me of my love of songcraft,” he says. “I can’t wait to take that newfound excitement back to Nashville and write the songs that want to be written.”