So you say you don’t like country music. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but before I go any farther, make sure you can really defend that claim. Did you listen to “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt on repeat all summer? I bet I can find it hiding on one of your Spotify playlists, no problem. This is not the only crossover success written by serial country hit-maker Shane McAnally. It seems like he has written (or co-written) just about every good country song playing on the radio. Without McAnally, I could easily argue that mainstream country music would be almost entirely devoid of lyrical talent. Just when a few too many miserably imbecile songs are released, he always seems to come to the rescue with a high-quality hit. He is, indeed, the unofficial patron saint of Nashville, Tenn.
McAnally was born in Texas but moved to Nashville at age 19. Since 2005, he has been producing hit after hit, working with artists such as Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt, Midland, and Kacey Musgraves, among many others. His knack for pairing smart lyrics with simple music carries today’s country music into an entirely new genre. McAnally’s distinctive writing style is best identified by concise lyrics, witty hooks, and a much-appreciated lack of generic country song references about trucks or beer.
For example, look at Hunt’s insanely successful “Body Like a Back Road.” The song works because of its extreme simplicity—it includes only four chords repeated throughout the entire song. The progression doesn’t change at all, which is why it is so catchy. The verses, chorus, and bridge all sound the same, which makes for a consistent beat easy to sing along to. “Body Like A Back Road” broke records left and right, including a 55-year-old one previously held by Leroy Van Dyke’s 1961 hit “Walk On By.” It also topped the Hot Country Songs chart for a record-breaking 34 weeks (that’s nearly eight months!). I’m pretty certain that if you took “Despacito” out of the picture, “Body Like A Back Road” would easily be considered song of the year in 2017.
Perhaps my favorite of all the songs McAnally has written is “Somewhere With You,” recorded by Kenny Chesney. Overflowing with lyrical gems, “Somewhere With You” has won the hearts of music fans spanning all genres. The enticing guitar, mixed with quick and smart choruses, creates a dark and mysterious character for the song. McAnally also wrote Chesney’s 2014 hit “American Kids,” which is known for its snappy and comical lyrics, filled with detail yet surprisingly simple when put to a tune. The song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Song, and it should have won. “American Kids’” famous chorus, “Growing up in little pink houses / Making out on living room couches / Blowing that smoke on a Saturday night / A little messed up but we’re all alright,” has garnered attention and praise from all corners in the world of music because of its raw and realistic portrayal of Chesney’s youth. The last couplet of the chorus became the catchphrase of Kenny Chesney fans all over for its gritty and unembellished portrayal of life. Lyrics like these are hard to come by in any genre of music, let alone in country (as much as I love to listen to the genre, I also love to criticize it).
My last example of McAnally’s total domination in the realm of country songwriting is “Stay a Little Longer,” written for Brothers Osborne’s 2016 album, Pawn Shop. The song is unusual in a few ways: it is long (5 minutes 35 seconds, to be exact), it is guitar driven (the last (and best) two minutes of the song consist of a lead guitar solo), and overall, it is more musically complex than most music today (it’s part blues, part rock, and the storytelling lyrics give the song an intricate emotional foundation). With “Stay a Little Longer,” McAnally created a whole new standard for country songwriting.
McAnally’s monopoly over country music spans many artists, albums, and styles. In addition to the four personal favorites previously listed, he has written hits for Lady Antebellum (“Downtown”), Old Dominion (“Written In the Sand”), Midland (“Drinkin’ Problem” and “Make a Little”), and Dierks Bentley (“Different for Girls”), among dozens of others. Even though McAnally has been involved in the writing or production of over 130 songs, he remains relatively unknown to most listeners. He deserves more credit for his work— his songs are constructed around high-quality lyrics, yet nobody knows who is the mastermind behind them all.
When I found out that McAnally was the primary writer on so many songs I love, I was both impressed and confounded. Clearly, he has immense amounts of talent as a songwriter. On the other hand, I began to realize that the people who write lyrics—the very most important component of music—are underappreciated. As listeners we should be more conscious of giving credit to those who devote themselves to the basic production of music and not just the ones who take credit for singing someone else’s words using five different types of autotune.
And, to introduce myself: I’m Emily, your new Assistant Arts Editor. I’m a sophomore from Miami, Fla., and I transferred to Boston College from the University of Miami. I am a double major in political science and communication. A lot of my column will be focused on music— I love all types but country will always have a special place in my heart. In addition to working for The Heights I am the Communications Director for the Cuban American Student Association (CASA), and in my free time you can probably find me baking [the world’s best] cookies or playing tennis.
Featured Image by CMA Awards