ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.
Behind every great country song, is a country song writer. And the man behind some of today’s biggest hits in country music, is my guest on the show today, Shane McAnally. He’s written number one hits for some of country music’s biggest stars: Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney... His speciality, songs evoking boozy late nights, when the bar’s about to close, bad decisions are about to get made. It’s a genre that’s been called “booty call noir.”
SHANE MCANALLY: Which I've made a -- such a career out of. I have no idea what my affinity for that is. Uh, I have...
ALEX BLUMBERG: No idea? [laughs]
SHANE MCANALLY: Had so many hits that way, and I still write them. I mean, it's funny, I'll joke with people, we'll go down that road and I'll be like, well here we are again.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I talked with Shane about how he ended up where he is today, at the top of the country music world. And he told me, there are many aspects of his life today that he could not have imagined as a kid - that very well might have terrified him in fact.
Which is funny, because in many ways, he’d been dreaming of the exact kind of success he’s enjoying today since he was a very young kid, growing up in Texas.
SHANE MCANALLY: My grandmother and my mother owned a clothing store in my hometown of Mineral Wells, Texas, a store called Foxy Jeans. And they sold blue jeans. And um, I would go there after school and would walk the perimeter of the parking lot, which was also the Walmart parking lot. And I -- 'cause their store was across the parking lot.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oof. That sounds rough.
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah And it went out of business because of Walmart, eventually, um... but I would just walk the perimeter of this parking lot and write songs. I mean, I would say I was probably 10 years old. And I didn't really know that's what I was doing. I know that sounds probably strange, but I was just sort of -- at first what would start is I would put lyrics in melodies of songs I already knew. Um really it was about what I thought these songs were supposed to be about. I loved country music. Everybody listened to country music there.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What -- what -- what was -- do you remember any of the songs that you made up when you were nine or 10?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yes, actually. I wish I had answered with a lie, 'cause I know what's coming next. You know, I can remember the whole chorus of a song that -- the only reason it embarrasses me is because it sounds so adult. But the reason I was -- I was basically just imitating songs I knew, but it was an original song. And the song was called Every Night, and I can remember the melody and everything. And it was like, "Every night I think of you and all the things we used to do, all the good times that we shared, all the moments that we cared. For each other through and through, girl, I sure miss you. And every night those memories come riding through." Now, I wrote that at 10 years old,
ALEX BLUMBERG: You wrote that when you w…! [laugh]
SHANE MCANALLY: And it -- I know that it sounds like it was maybe not an accomplished songwriter wrote it, but it sounds like someone older than 10. You know, I still got how to put it together, which is, you know, is really -- it's strange really.
ALEX BLUMBERG: When you would sing, sing those songs to your mom, what would she -- I mean, what would she say?
SHANE MCANALLY: I think she was probably less impressed than, like, you and I are now with that, because it just didn't make any sense to her. First of all, you have to realize my mother at that time, when I was 10 years old, my mom was 27. And, my mom and I sort of grew up together. Ultimately, my dad, um, had some -- some pretty bad problems with the law and ended up going to prison for a while and, you know, it was my mom and -- and me and my sister. And, uh, I still -- I look back and a lot of things that I maybe held my mom to a higher standard than really anyone should have someone her age and in her situation. She was working three jobs and just trying to keep -- literally keep food on the table. And, um, so I don't know if she even had the capacity to understand what I was doing.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
SHANE MCANALLY: It was more like, "Oh, that's really cool. Like, where did you learn that?" I think she also thought I was probably singing someone else's song.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. It'd be nice though. I mean, it must've been -- I imagine on some level it -- I mean, having -- having your child sing to you a pretty song. That always … that had to be nice!
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah. Oh, she was super proud, and -- and ultimately, you know, when I was, like, 13, she sought out someone that would take me in the studio and let me record songs I had written. Um, It was -- the ultimate goal was to make me a star to -- so I could sing these songs. Because we thought that was the -- you know, the only sort of career path we saw for me was like, "Oh, you could be George Strait." Um. And little did we know George Strait didn't write his songs. Um. And little did we know I wasn't straight. [laughter] That really was a curve ball.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So when -- you said, little did we know. Did -- did you know?
SHANE MCANALLY: No. You know, it just wasn't -- I had feelings, thoughts that, you know, when I guess anybody's going into puberty as a teenager, but they're so confusing that I just assumed that that was just what everyone was thinking. I guess I didn't, because the truth is I knew not to tell anyone, so I just didn't know what it was. And I used to pray that, you know, I would find a wife, and I guess I prayed not to be gay.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
SHANE MCANALLY: But I think even praying for that specifically was so scary, because that would be admitting to myself that I was.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So Shane kept those thoughts, those feelings, to himself and he threw himself into showbiz, started performing around Texas and Oklahoma at local country music shows, on what was called the Opry Circuit. And when he was 15, Shane’s mom sent an audition tape to what I guess you’d call the American Idol of the 1980s and 90s... It was a TV show called Star Search. Star Search liked his tape, and eventually they invited him to perform in front of a live studio audience in Los Angeles.
SHANE MCANALLY: Star Search was pretty much the biggest thing you could do. Um, and it was Ed McMahon who was -- I always think of him as the Publishing Clearinghouse guy who would give these big checks to people on TV. But he hosted, and -- and you would compete against one person, and -- and there was a winner each week. And then, like, whoever won went on to the next week.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh. And how are you feeling?
SHANE MCANALLY: I thought that was the break. You know, I really thought, um, I'm gonna go on the show. And now you have to imagine at this point, I'm 15 years old, my dad is in prison. I live in a small town with my mom who's working constantly and my little sister, and we're barely hanging on. And I -- this was what I was waiting for. I was gonna get to fix everything. So that's what I was thinking, th -- and it was a lot of pressure looking back to put, you know, on myself, because I really thought it was my job to sort of get us out of that situation.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm. So -- so you're thinking, like, "Okay, this is my big break. I'm gonna go." And then what did success look like to you in your imagination? Like, what did that successful you look like?
SHANE MCANALLY: That I would be on the Country Music Awards. That was sort of the pinnacle for me. That was the only thing I knew is that I would go to Nashville and I would get a record deal, make a record and win Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs. That's it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. That's a lot of, um, hopes and dreams and pressure sort of all on -- all on this one appearance.
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah!
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, okay. So you go out to L...LA? Is that where Star Search is, right?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And what happened?
SHANE MCANALLY: Well, um, we got there and there -- the hotel was right in West Hollywood actually. And I remember walking, like, with my mom. We got there one day, we were gonna tape the next day. And I remember us walking to a grocery store to get some food for the hotel room. And it was the first time I had ever seen anything gay. Um, we walked by a few bars in the daytime and there were people in there, and it wasn't like anybody was kissing or anything like that, 'cause this was -- you know, this was late '80s. And, um, we didn't see anything like that but I could just -- it was just different. Like, the guys looked at me different, and that sort of put a real fear in me. Um, I think that's when I first realized like, "Oh, shit. I better not be thinking about this." And that -- I probably went into hyper-prayer. But I just remember that moment of, like, making eye contact with someone and thinking, "Oh like, this is -- this is something else." And my mom didn't notice it or think anything about it. Um...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. But you're like, "I'm feeling things that I don't want to feel."
SHANE MCANALLY: That's right. That's right. But then we went back to the hotel, whatever, with our food. The next day we taped. Um, what I remember about the taping was that my mom had had this outfit made for me that was, like, green suede with, like, these long fringe pieces on it and rhinestones. It was -- I looked like Glen Campbell on crack. I mean, it wasn't -- it was not of the moment. And she had these boots dyed to match the jacket.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my god.
SHANE MCANALLY: And when we went to tape, my, um -- my mom went out to the audience, and it was about to be my turn. And I had heard the girl that was -- that I was gonna be against, because in the teen category, boys and girls were against each other, and I heard her practicing. And she, in my mind, she was Whitney Houston. She was the best singer I'd ever heard. And I was already, like, defeated before I even competed. And um I just looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, this looks like a clown. So the only thing I could think to fix it was to not wear those boots that match, 'cause it was like doorstops or -- or like a bookend on my, you know, my jacket and my boots. It just looked ridiculous. So I changed into these black, plain cowboy boots and then went out, did my song, the most -- I mean, my heart starts beating fast talking about it. It -- I've never felt scared like that. I don't even know how I did it. I can remember Ed McMahon saying my name, and then it was just -- the rest is a blur. I just -- I know I didn't win, and when I didn't win I walked off stage. They literally take you out into the alley right away, put you in a bus. Because if you don't win, they take you back to the hotel and you get on an airplane. If you do win, you stay there and they do another episode right away. So, umm, I went back to the alley and they were bringing my mom around, and you know, I guess my mom was so disappointed too that she couldn't even… You know what she said was, "Where are those boots that I dyed to match your jacket?" [laughs] We -- I mean, my mom had a lot of dreams pinned on me as well.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. God, that sounds so dismal.
SHANE MCANALLY: It was awful, you know? And what's -- to be honest with you, I didn't -- I couldn't watch that for years. I couldn't find the humor in it. I was so sad for that kid you know, I just -- I know how much it meant to him. I was a gay kid in this small town in Texas and even though I hadn't come out or even admitted to myself, it was hard for me. You know, I -- I played music and wanted to do a lot of things that guys in Texas didn't do.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.
SHANE MCANALLY: And I know that being on Star Search is not that dramatic. But it was to me at that age.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah... so you come back to Texas. All the dreams that you have pinned on this show are now dashed. And you are now struggling with your sexual identity and your -- your family is, like, sort of just -- just making ends meet. What are you thinking? What's your next move then?
SHANE MCANALLY: Well, I was still playing the Opry circuit, um, but not as much. I was then getting into more of, you know, look, I had a car and Um, I'm actually very popular in high school. I really knew how to -- to play the game that people wanted me to play. I had a great group of friends that I'm still friends with. They know me different now, but, you know, then I was doing what you're supposed to do. And it really mattered to me to be popular. I wanted to be class president, you know? I wanted to be -- like, popularity contests strangely really mattered to me, and it's somewhat embarrassing to say that, but now far enough away from it to say I really pinned a lot of my validation on stuff like that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Were you like prom king popular?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Like, were you -- were you the prom king?
SHANE MCANALLY: No, I wasn't. But I was, like, most handsome that year and the class president, and I was always some form of it. I was in the court and all that stuff. Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You dated the cheerleaders?
SHANE MCANALLY: My -- my high school girlfriend was the head cheerleader. Yeah. And so yeah, all that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] Do you ever -- do you ever think -- this is a crazy thought, but maybe you think it. Do you ever think to yourself, like, if you had just been a straight version of yourself, like, how intolerable you'd be right now?
SHANE MCANALLY: Ugh, I think of that all the time. No joke. I would have been so many times over divorced. I would have probably children everywhere. Um, yes, 100%.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Throughout high school, Shane stayed on the popular guy path. When he graduated, he went to the University of Texas, where he joined a fraternity and kept dating women. In college, he also told himself it was time to get serious, give up this dream of a career in music. He settled instead on something more sensible. Became an accounting major.
But he couldn’t ever quite kick the music dream. He kept writing songs on the side. And when spring break rolled around his freshman year, he talked a few of his fraternity brothers into taking a road trip with him to Nashville.
SHANE MCANALLY: They drove with me in my grandmother's van to Nashville. And we had no plan, but I would just sit around the fraternity house and sing songs. So they were like, "Yeah, we'll do this. We'll go see how you make it." And so we went to Nashville and went to the Bluebird Cafe, 'cause that was something I'd heard of.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And the Bluebird is this very -- is a very popular, like, open-mic kind of place in Nashville?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yes, exactly. And it was in this little strip mall and that was the only thing I knew to do was go there. And we went there and I could go in there and put my name in a hat for an open-mic night. And, you know, there were way too many people to actually perform. Um, but my name got drawn, and it was the first time I'd ever sang a song I wrote in front of like-minded people. It was a room full of songwriters. And it was…
ALEX BLUMBERG: What songs did you ...
SHANE MCANALLY: I played a song called Long Walk Home, which was about these two kids at school and he says to her, "Can I walk you home?" And she says, "Well, it's a long walk home." And then later they -- when they get married, for some reason they have a breakup or something and he comes to her and says, "I really want to get back together." And she says, "It's a long walk home."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, nice. That's good. Yeah.
SHANE MCANALLY: So, you know, that old -- that old country twist.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs]
SHANE MCANALLY: Um. You gotta use it multiple ways. But anyway, um I got a good response, um... Like, you know, applause and things. But it's a small room, but you could just tell the difference between other people that got up there. Or maybe that was in my head, and it was enough to just make me want to stay, because it was a room full of people like me that were there writing songs and this was their first opportunity to play them in front of people. And so we went back to Texas, and I failed all my classes that semester. And it was because all I did after that was just write songs. I was just eaten up with it. I couldn't even go to class. And I went home after that and just told my mom, you know, that I was just going to Nashville. And, you know, she -- she didn't want me to. Just because I think just the fear of -- obviously of me not making it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And so, just a year after deciding to embark on a sensible career in accounting, Shane abandoned that plan, and, at the age of 19, dropped out of school altogether and moved to Nashville. He started performing around town, hoping to land a record deal, and working side jobs to make ends meet.
SHANE MCANALLY: So I went and got a bartending job I don't even know how I was doing that at 19. I don't know what the rules are, but um, I would bartend every time something fell apart, I would just go back to, you know, the service industry. It was always there. And um, I worked at a Bennigan's that I don't even think they have anymore.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I remember Bennigan’s.
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah. And so that’s what I was doing. I still have friends that I worked with at Bennigan’s that are good friends now. I think gosh, secretly they surely were all going, “Oh my God, if we have to go to one more of his shows.” You know, I would just beat people up about like, “I’m doing a show and, you know, in this bar or whatever.” But I don’t know.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Huh. And at this point, what is your social life like? Are you dating people? And who are you dating?
SHANE MCANALLY: I actually met -- I actually met a girl at the University of Texas, and we started dating. And we...ultimately she moved to Nashville. Now what happened when she moved to Nashville was that the -- the time ticking on my sexuality, or -- or the gray area started to not be so gray. It started to be like a time bomb. Like, "Oh my God, she's coming here, and she's going to expect that we're gonna get married." And, um -- and so I told her. And at first it was awful and, you know, we had a period of time where we didn't speak and she had her own place in Nashville. And then what happened was she came back around and was like, "The truth is, you are my best friend. And she said, "But I know what your dream is, to be a country music singer. And I know that this lifestyle,would not -- they wouldn't support that." You know, the country music audience, the record labels, the people that I needed to impress. And -- and I've got to say that was a conclusion we both knew of. I mean, we weren't -- you know, she was just basically saying, "I know you're not going to come out if you want to be a country music star." So she kind of -- she was like a beard. Um, and everyone thought we were together, which was one of the most gracious un, you know, selfish things anyone has ever done.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm, yeah, um, so...So this is '94 in Nashville. Eventually you get a deal with, uh -- eventually it works, basically. Or sort of works. You get -- you -- you -- you're -- you're making introductions, et cetera, and you get a deal with Curb Records?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah. And at that time Curb Records was the hottest label. I mean, that -- their roster was just impeccable. It was really where everyone wanted to be.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
SHANE MCANALLY: And then I started working on a record and, you know, meeting producers and I was just writing songs for the record. And I just really thought that it was going to just go exactly the way I had planned it. Now mind you, I'm secretly in the closet. I have a boyfriend and I have a public girlfriend. Um. And it -- I see that now as such a mess.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
SHANE MCANALLY: But at the time it just seemed like right on track. Like, I'm just gonna make this record.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I'm gonna live my secret life...my secret private life and I'm gonna be a country music star.
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: That was the plan anyway. What actually happened, that’s coming up after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with songwriter Shane McAnally.
Shane had landed a record deal in Nashville, on the prestigious label Curb Records. His first single dropped in 1999. A song called “Say Anything.”
SHANE MCANALLY SONG: Say you’re happy where you are, say you’re loadin’ up the car. Oh! Oh oh! Say anything...
ALEX BLUMBERG: In the music video for Say Anything, you see Shane dancing around in a bright, blue button up shirt and black jeans, with a crowd of extras. And of course any video from the 90’s, it’ll feel dated, but there’s something about this one that just doesn’t feel true, the video, but also, the song, the performance...I couldn’t help noticing it.
And country music fans in the late 90’s, they noticed it too. Shane’s debut album flopped. He had three singles. None of them made it very high on the charts. And his chances of making it as a country music star seemed to vanish. Shane was devastated. Professionally, it was a huge blow. But also, he was struggling more and more with living his double life.
SHANE MCANALLY: I was really depressed. I was in therapy. I wouldn't even tell the therapist I was gay. Um, I was so scared and I would stay in bed a lot. I got really heavy, I gained a lot of weight. Clearly it was a -- it was really hard on me. And it lasted for -- that lasted for a long time.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.
SHANE MCANALLY: I was, you know, suppressing all of this stuff for this career that wasn't happening. And so that was, you know, sickening, I mean, literally sickening. I was sick, you know? And I, um, ultimately after that record came out and after we worked a couple singles for a couple years, at this point we're into, like, '99, 2000. And I, um -- I went out to Los Angeles. My publicist at the time had a place in West Hollywood, and I just went out there to spend a week. Like, just get away from everything. And I stayed for eight years. But I...
ALEX BLUMBERG: So -- so wait. Let me go back to the beginning here. So, so you go out to LA and you're supposed to be there for a week. What -- what was the moment where, when you know, that week turned into eight years?
SHANE MCANALLY: Well, the week went by and then she was -- my publicist was a friend, and she was going back and forth from Nashville. And after a week I was like, "I need to find another place because I want to stay longer." And she was like, "Oh, I'm not coming back for a while. You can stay there for two months." So I stayed there for two more months. And that was after that was when I was like, "I'm not leaving," you know? And that -- that time period, you know, is where the least happened for me. Nothing career-wise that I could point to, but everything personally. You know, I -- I started working at a bar in West Hollywood. I would see gay people openly interacting with each other. That was just mind-blowing to me. And it was very liberating, being a bartender in West Hollywood and not wearing a shirt behind the bar and getting all that attention, I mean, look, I was a good-looking guy. I had never gotten attention like that. And, you know, it -- it probably went back to me just wanting to be popular and I was.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You were like the popular kid again like you were in high school...
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah
ALEX BLUMBERG: …but this time, like... the gay, 20-something version of that?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah, exactly. That's what I was doing in West Hollywood. [laughs]
ALEX BLUMBERG: Just the version you always wanted to be.
SHANE MCANALLY: In my mind, that is what -- working at a -- a big dance club on Santa Monica in West Hollywood. And then, like, after your shift is over going out and any bar you want to go to, you don't have to wait in line, and people give you drugs. And yeah, it's kinda like that's as close to being a celebrity in that world I could be.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So at this point, we'll call it the, the the gay prom king period of your life.
SHANE MCANALLY: Perfect. I love that.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Um...Did -- what -- what's -- what's your relationship like with your -- with your folks? Are you out to your parents at this point?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah. I came out to my mom during that time. And it wasn't great. She loved me unconditionally, but she blamed anyone that I was with for me being gay. And, um, definitely thought I was just confused and that it would change. And she was mostly scared because she knew at the root of everything I wanted to be a country music songwriter or a singer. And her thought was, if you're gay, you can't do that. And I think that was what the biggest heartbreak and hurdle for her to get over was.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Did you think that that was going to be her reaction or were you -- were you surprised and saddened by it?
SHANE MCANALLY: No, I knew it would be bad because there were so many indicators before that that I was gay that she would not look at. And so because she had so obviously turned a blind eye to it, I -- I realized that it was gonna be a hard thing. But you know when she was finally coming around a few years after, you know, we were joking and I said, "I mean mom, how did you not know I was gay?" And she was like, "Why would I know?" And I said, "I mean, I love Bette Midler." And she goes, "Who doesn't?" [laughter]
ALEX BLUMBERG: Straight men, mom.
SHANE MCANALLY: I said -- I said, "Every straight guy." She goes, "Well, I didn't realize that. I didn't know that that was a gay thing." She goes, "I love Bette Midler." [laughs]
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, slowly but surely, Shane was embracing his true identity. But there was a dark side to his life in LA as well. He was playing the odd gig around town but his music career wasn’t going anywhere. He’d gotten deep into drugs and alcohol, and eventually went into rehab to get sober. And money was tight. Then, in 2007, things took another turn for the worse.
SHANE MCANALLY: I bought a place in LA in 2007, because I got this short-lived publishing deal from this big investor who knew nothing about music but just had a lot of money, and paid me a really good salary to write songs. And so I went and bought a place in West Hollywood, and six months later I couldn't make the payment. And I would get notices and people would call you all the time, but I had no intention of paying, 'cause I didn't have the money. It was -- you were waiting on people to knock on your door. Ultimately -- and that's no joke. My stuff was boxed up. I got everything except my bed ready to go. And that was the absolute rock bottom. It really was like, what have I done with my life? I'm 33 at that point. And um, And then I met my, would-be husband right at the end of all that. And what happened was I met him in Palm Springs. Um. He was from Atlanta. And, um, he came to my place and saw that all my stuff was boxed up, and he wanted to know why. And he knew that I didn't have a car. And he actually helped me get through a lot of that. Uh, because...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait. You brought this guy home to your house where all your stuff was boxed -- boxed up?
SHANE MCANALLY: Um yeah, he came over while he was in LA and all my stuff was boxed up. And for some reason I didn't care that he saw that. That -- I had never dated anyone that I didn't put on a show for. It was like I couldn't keep any of that a secret. And you know, I had -- there was no front I could keep.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So there Shane was, 33 years old, about to get kicked out of his house, starting a relationship with a guy who lived on the opposite coast. And it was right around this time that one of Shane’s friends called and said, “You know what? I think you should take a trip back to Nashville. I have an idea for you.” The friend’s idea was that he wanted to put Shane in touch with an established songwriter in town, a woman named Erin Enderlin. The friend thought that Shane and Erin would be good songwriting partners, would work well together. So Shane got on a plane and headed to Nashville, to meet up with Erin.
SHANE MCANALLY: She wrote at Universal Publishing, which -- there was a room there for writers. There were multiple rooms. And she reserved a room, and we were on the books to write at like 10:00 AM at Universal Publishing. And I went up there with my guitar and met her, and we sat down in this room and we worked on a song all day, and eventually ended up writing a song called “Last Call.” And uh basically, it was just about a guy calling at the end of the night, 'cause he's drunk and using the play on words of it was last call and I'm always your last call. Um, you know, I knew country music well enough to know we had written something really special. I was like, "Oh, this is something here." You know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Can you just sing a few bars of it, just so we know how it sounds?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah, it was like, "I bet you're in a bar, listen to a cheatin' song. Glass of Johnny Walker Red, with no one to take you home. They're probably closing down, saying no more alcohol. Yeah, I bet you're in a bar…
LEE ANN WOMACK SONG: 'Cause I'm always your last, call me crazy...
SHANE MCANALLY: And it ended up getting recorded by Lee Ann Womack.
ALEX BLUMBERG: When was the first time you heard her version of it?
SHANE MCANALLY: I -- I was -- I was over at a friend's place. And I was sleeping on his couch, and someone emailed it to me in the morning. It was very early. And I got up and put headphones on and sat on the couch and listened to it. And it made me cry. And the thought of it makes me cry, because Lee Ann Womack is my favorite singer and was all through -- the first time I heard her was in '98, and she's the greatest country singer I think that's ever lived. I love her. And I wrote so many songs with her in my mind. And so the fact that she was the first, it just always meant such a huge deal to me.
ALEX BLUMBERG: What did it mean?
SHANE MCANALLY: I just felt like, for me, that I was on the right track. Like, "Oh, okay. I put all this into motion. I've been, uh, writing for her, praying for this." I felt like God was on my side now. Like, that he had heard everything I had asked for, and that maybe it didn't look the way I thought it was going to, but that he had a plan all along. And that's just what I had to believe. It was my version of God, and that I had a bigger story, you know, than the one that I had been telling myself for a long time.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up, Shane moves back to Nashville full time, and does something he’d been afraid to do for a while: he comes out to the country music industry. That’s after the break.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Shane McAnally.
After losing his house in Los Angeles, Shane finally caught a break when he landed a big single on a Lee Ann Womack record. It was enough for Shane to get taken seriously as a songwriter in Nashville. So in 2008, he decided to move back there full time, and try a second time to make it in country music — this time, not as a performer — singing and performing the songs himself, but as a songwriter — writing songs that other people would perform.
And it was starting to feel like things were finally coming together. He had some money coming in from “Last Call.” He was living closer to his boyfriend Michael. But he was still in the closet, in Nashville.
SHANE MCANALLY: I came back thinking I had sort of pulled off the great Houdini by leaving Nashville to sort of live like that. And then I could come back. And I just thought because my boyfriend lived in Atlanta and no one would know him, that I could just keep living like that and just not mention it. And he said to me, "I won't -- I won't do that. Like, I won't be a part of a relationship where someone's in the closet." And in that moment I said, "Okay, then I guess I'm gonna start telling people."
ALEX BLUMBERG: Who was the first person you told?
SHANE MCANALLY: Back in Nashville?
ALEX BLUMBERG: After that conversation with your boyfriend, yeah.
SHANE MCANALLY: I was actually writing with, um, Josh Osborne, who has become my most frequent collaborator and best friend. And Trevor Rosen. And it was, I just can remember that room that day. And just somehow us talking and talking and joking, and they were joking about their wives. And I just said, "I don't know if y'all know this, but I'm gay and I'm in a really serious relationship with this guy that lives in Atlanta. And so I can relate to what you're saying, because I'm also in a relationship." And basically just saying, "Oh yeah, I hate when he does that." And trying to just relate to their story. And they -- you know, they said, "We knew, because we've actually had a conversation with it -- about it before today." Um. But it didn't matter. And in fact, they were the ones that just said, "You know, we love you. We want to work with you. We -- we want to meet Michael. We want you to meet our wives, and let's all be family." And that's what we are. And so I -- I went out of that room thinking I could tell anyone. And I didn't hide it anymore. And if it came up -- the thing was everyone knew. But I didn't know everyone knew. And it didn't matter. And why it didn't matter was because it didn't matter to me anymore. And I realized that the shift that needed to come all along was from me, you know? I didn't go into the situation apologizing for being gay, which gave people power to judge me over it. It's -- it's coming in and saying, if it comes up, you know, “I have a boyfriend." And it's not -- it's not how straight people have to lead a conversation, so I didn't lead the conversation that way. But I didn't change the pronoun when I talked about who I was with. And, you know, nobody ever even missed a beat. It never meant anything to anyone.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Really?
SHANE MCANALLY: Really. It's so weird. I don't know if it was -- I mean, I don't know if times had changed. I do think time, there's a big part of it that, you know, that decade had made a big difference. But also it just -- I don't know, I never had -- maybe -- look, maybe when I left the room, I don't know. But I never felt it.
ALEX BLUMBERG: With his double life behind him, Shane got deeper into the country music-writing scene in Nashville, and eventually, he set his sights on one of the biggest stars in country music: Kenny Chesney. Shane had written a song he thought would be perfect for him. Something a bit different, that would push Chesney into new territory.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So how do you go about pitching your song to him? What do you do?
SHANE MCANALLY: Well, there's -- through A&R at his label, through his manager, through his producer. They all take meetings to listen to songs, and it would just get pitched to all these different people. That would...
ALEX BLUMBERG: Describe one of those meetings, what do you do? You just show up with, like, a thumb drive?
SHANE MCANALLY: Then you showed up with um a CD, and -- at that time, and you had demos of the songs that you wanted to pitch. And the person would sit there for about 30 minutes and go through your songs with you sitting there.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And what are they -- what are the expressions on their faces?
SHANE MCANALLY: Most of the time they don't say anything. They say, "Huh, I've never heard him do something like that." Which means nothing. But it took 11 different pitches, um different ways that we tried to get it to him. And eventually he did hear it. And when he heard it, he loved it. And they called and said he was cutting it. I was actually in Vegas with my now husband. I was in the mall, the Fashion Show Mall in Vegas. I remember right where I was standing, 'cause when we've been there since then, we always go, "Remember when you were standing right there?" Um, I started crying. It was just, you know … huge.
ALEX BLUMBERG: You started crying?
SHANE MCANALLY: Oh, I was just like, "I cannot believe it." I mean, it meant that much to get a Kenny Chesney cut. Plus, I cry easy.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. I'm getting that. That's good. I'm a pro-cry -- I'm pro-crying.
SHANE MCANALLY: Good.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, I'm just imagining, like, you on the -- on the phone in a mall in Las Vegas with tears coming down your face.
SHANE MCANALLY: It's no joke. And my husband thought someone had died.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh really?
SHANE MCANALLY: I was bent over and he was like, "Oh, my God! What, what, what?" And I was like, "No, no, no. It's good. It's good. It's good." And that was -- that felt like the biggest moment ever. I mean, that -- look, Lee Ann Womack recording it was a personal win, and I had needed that cut so bad to get me there, but Kenny Chesney, nobody could touch him.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh huh.
SHANE MCANALLY: Getting a song on a Kenny Chesney record for the field I was in, that was what everyone wanted.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And what -- how does that one go? Can you sing that one?
SHANE MCANALLY: That's um, "Somewhere with you, laughing loud on a carnival ride, yeah..."
KENNY CHESNEY SONG: Driving around on a Saturday night / You made fun of me for singing my song / Got a hotel room just to turn you on...
SHANE MCANALLY: It just was this shotgun phrasing that was real strange. And it was such a departure for Kenny. It was just something he had never done. And that seemed to sort of set my whole world on fire. That was my first number one. And that was in 2010. And I've had 40 since.
ALEX BLUMBERG: 40 number ones?
SHANE MCANALLY: Yeah.
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] That's crazy!
SHANE MCANALLY: [laughs]
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, is the fact that you came out, is that linked to the success?
SHANE MCANALLY: 100 percent yes. Uh. That was the missing link for me. I couldn't fully create in an authentic manner until I was being authentic myself. That sounds kind of, you know, big-worded or something, but that is at the heart of it, I didn't have the confidence to be myself, which meant the music I was making was just an imitation. Because I was imitating -- I was imitating what I thought a straight guy was supposed to be. So my songs were imitations of songs I'd heard before.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Mm-hmm.
SHANE MCANALLY: You know, the songs aren't -- you wouldn't know the songs were written by straight guy, gay gay. That's not the point. The point is I came into my own skin, and then in the writing room I had the confidence to go, "I like it like this. Let's do this." And I was very decisive. And I did have a distinct sound, and I think that then what happened was people came along and said, "We want a song like Somewhere With You." And I had them, because that was a -- that was the way I wrote.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And it felt different in the writing room after you -- after you -- after you were out?
SHANE MCANALLY: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. I wasn't -- I didn't think about what I was gonna say. That's another thing that made me better as a writer, because I wasn't filtering anything or thinking, "Am I using the right pronoun?" Or, "What did I say last time I was here?" To make sure my story lines up.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.
SHANE MCANALLY: You know?
ALEX BLUMBERG: Huh. You -- you weren't distracted by the cover story. You could just focus on ...
SHANE MCANALLY: Exactly. I could just -- that's right. That's right.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Today, Shane’s success is a bit more behind the scenes than maybe he imagined when he was a teenager in Mineral Wells, Texas. But in 2014, he fulfilled one of his teenage dreams almost to a T, when a song he co-wrote, “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves, won the best new song at the Country Music Awards.
ARCHIVAL TIM TEBOW: Follow Your Arrow, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally!...
ALEX BLUMBERG: “Follow Your Arrow” is a far cry from the “booty call noir” that Shane is known for - it’s an uplifting anthem that encourages listeners to be true to themselves, with lyrics like “kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that's somethin' you're into.”
ARCHIVAL KACEY MUSGRAVES: Oh my goodness! Do you guys realize what this means for country music?
ALEX BLUMBERG: And after this, Shane made it to the CMAs several more times. He recently, in fact, tied the record for most songs nominated for “song of the year”.
In addition to his songwriting and producing country hits, Shane’s a co-host on the new NBC reality show Songland, in which aspiring songwriters (like Shane once was) pitch their songs for a chance to have them recorded by pop stars like Will.i.am and Megan Trainor.
We created a playlist of Shane McAnally hits - from artists like Kenny Chesney and Kacey Musgraves... You can find it exclusively on Spotify, at www.withoutfail.show/shane. Or, if you’re listening right now on spotify, you can just click on the link in the show notes.
Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor.
Mixing by Kegan Zema and music by Bobby Lord.
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