Hitmaking Songwriter Shane McAnally Is Now Changing His Tune: 'I Can't Believe I'm Saying That!' (Exclusive)

Celebrating two Grammy nominations, the Nashville icon describes the new ways he's fueling his fire and also reveals he's just endured the "toughest co-write" of his life

<p>Robby Klein</p> Shane McAnally

Robby Klein

Shane McAnally

Even after years of notching hit after hit, superstar songwriter Shane McAnally keeps finding out there's lots to learn about his craft. One recent lesson: If you enlist 22 fifth-graders as your co-writers, don’t expect it to go smoothly.

“They all had an opinion,” says McAnally, 49, chuckling as he recalls his experience volunteering to lead a songwriting session in his 11-year-old twins’ classroom. “They all had an idea, and I had to be collaborative. What I really wanted to do was tell everybody, ‘I know what rhymes with this! I know how to do this!’ No, I had to let them in, and it was 22 fifth-graders yelling."

McAnally laughs at the memory. “That was,” he says, “the toughest co-write I’ve ever had.”

Why put himself through the trial? The answer says a lot about McAnally, who now sits at the top of his game with two of the most coveted Grammy nominations for a songwriter.

For years, following the success of his groundbreaking 2010 hit, Kenny Chesney's “Somewhere with You,” McAnally jumped on a professional treadmill, chasing the next chart-topper with three-a-day songwriting sessions. Over time he upped his level of difficulty, also simultaneously juggling a publishing company, a record label and the making of a Broadway musical.

<p>Robby Klein</p> Shane McAnally

Robby Klein

Shane McAnally

Related: Shane McAnally and Kylie Morgan Collaborate on 'Growing Young' — a Song Born from a Real-Life Couple's Love Story

These days, though all those pursuits remain in his portfolio, McAnally tells PEOPLE he’s gladly entered a new life phase — one that allows for such moments (albeit humbling) at his kids’ school. Now deliberately off the treadmill, he’s cultivating a different drive, the kind that offers rewards not measured by numbers or trophies.

Granted, he already possesses those in abundance: two CMA awards, six ACMs (two for songwriter of the year), three Grammys and more than 50 No. 1 hits that he’s co-written or co-produced — including such classics as Sam Hunt's “Body Like a Back Road,” Thomas Rhett's “Marry Me” and Keith Urban's “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”

“Writing country music is all I ever wanted to do,” he says. “Growing up, I was obsessed. And then it got to the point where I would leave a room and not remember what I’d written. There’s guilt that comes with that because the world has given you everything you asked for — and it’s never enough. But it wasn’t about that. It was about, how do I use this and start to be of service, to feel like I’m helping someone? Because ultimately this isn’t gonna be enough. Just standing up here and collecting number one records and getting paid — that’s gonna start to feel hollow.”

Related: Songland's Shane McAnally Shares Stories Behind His Biggest Hits with Blake, Kacey & More

Over the past year, he says, he’s been asking himself, “Do I want to keep up?” Shockingly, he’s been answering, “I don’t. I can't believe I'm saying that, but I want other things and I'm really enjoying it this way.”

McAnally readily acknowledges his commercial success has given him the luxury to embrace these new feelings, to reprioritize and redirect his life. Not only is he making more time for his family — he shares son, Dash, and daughter, Dylan, with husband Michael Baum — but he’s also taking more time to savor experiences, not outcomes.

“I’m a competitive person,” he admits, confessing he’s been known to treat songwriting “like a sport.” That mindset, though, “doesn’t serve me at all anymore,” he says. “I used to have this idea for years that, if I was in the room, I was responsible for whatever happened, and if the song didn’t turn out great or didn’t get recorded, it was on me.”

McAnally brings up a recent writing session with Lainey Wilson to offer a glimpse of the new, less competitive version of himself. “I felt more like I was in a sidecar getting to help her write it the way she wanted to — and I liked it,” he says. “I liked feeling this is her day, this is her record. I realized she’s got this. I just get to be there, first of all, to just hang out and get to know this person, and along the way, we wrote a couple songs. I don’t have to worry about where those songs go because it was so fun writing them” — adding with a chuckle, “and that’s new!”

<p>David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty</p> Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally at the Grammys in Los Angeles in February 2019

David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty

Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally at the Grammys in Los Angeles in February 2019

He obviously is also having fun with the accolades still coming his way, earned from the years of relentless work. The Grammy nominations are especially sweet. The three already on his mantel are all courtesy of writing with and producing Kacey Musgraves. (“My son makes sure to let me know that I would have no Grammys without Kacey Musgraves,” he says with good humor.) This time around, he’s up for best musical theater album for Shucked, the acclaimed Broadway comedy he wrote and produced with fellow Nashville songwriter Brandy Clark. He’s earned his second nomination solo, for songwriter of the year, non-classical.

“It’s wildest dreams,” he says about the Grammy nods. “It’s things that you don’t dare to dream because you don’t want to get disappointed.”

Related: Country Date Night at Broadway's 'Shucked' — Kelsea & Chase, Kacey & Cole and More Couples!

The songwriter nomination especially shows off McAnally’s versatility. His nine submissions include songs by frequent collaborators Clark, Walker Hayes, Old Dominion, and Carly Pearce, but they also feature cuts by Christian artist Lauren Daigle and pop star Niall Horan, as well as the Shucked showstopper “Independently Owned” (which helped its performer, Alex Newell, win a Tony).

Related: Alex Newell Makes Tony Awards History with Win: 'You Can Do Anything You Put Your Mind To'

The Daigle song, “He’s Never Gunna Change,” resulted from a writing invitation from his “dear friend,” Natalie Hemby, another Nashville A-list songwriter. (“I’ll do anything with her,” says McAnally.) The Horan song, “Never Grow Up,” emerged from a songwriting camp for the artist.

“I was definitely nervous to go, and very sweetly, Niall was very aware of my stuff and was just very open to my ideas,” McAnally says. “I want to do more of that. I love commercial music and I also love a lot of stuff that’s outside the box. But when it comes to pop music, the stuff that everybody loves is usually what I love. I love Taylor Swift. I love Katy Perry, and Niall is certainly on that list. So it was exciting that worked out.”

The nomination for Shucked is the culmination of a 10-year high-stakes gamble that McAnally, Clark and scriptwriter Robert Horn took to bring the show to Broadway. McAnally says if he’d known the time commitment from the start, “I don’t know if we would’ve done it. And I’m so glad we didn’t know because the journey of this show has been so much bigger than even landing on Broadway. It is the ultimate example of the cliché that ‘it is about the journey.’”

<p>Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty</p> Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally at the Tony Awards in New York City in June 2023

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally at the Tony Awards in New York City in June 2023

Along the way, McAnally formed bonds with the cast, crew and the show’s 84-year-old director Jack O’Brien. “He’s reinvented age and vigor and passion for me as far as just how to take your wisdom and your experience,” says McAnally. “He’s the greatest gift of this entire show.”

After a more-than-respectable run of 355 performances, Shucked was forced to close Jan. 14 when it lost its theater home. McAnally has soothed his disappointment with knowing the show indeed will go on. Its national tour will launch this fall; London and Sydney productions are in the works; and plans for a movie version also are in motion.

“I still have hopes and still feel like we might pop back up on Broadway,” McAnally says. “I don’t know why, but I just haven’t felt this heaviness.”

He says he also believes he has another Broadway show in him: “We’re already scouring properties and talking to people and getting excited about 10 things at once. I’m not naïve about the fact that just because we come up with a great idea means that it goes all the way, but I can just enjoy the process and be excited about the possibility.”

Once again, it’s the experience, not the outcome. The recurring theme also pops up when he mentions “maybe the best song I’ve ever been a part of,” a cut on Musgraves’ next album, set for release later this year. “It means so much to me, maybe more because I didn’t write two songs before it that day and I wasn’t up the next day writing three more songs,” he says. “It was natural. We got together and we had a great day with [frequent co-writer] Josh Osborne and her, and it was just like the old days.”

<p>Kevin Mazur/Getty</p> Shane McAnally and Michael Baum in New York City in June 2023

Kevin Mazur/Getty

Shane McAnally and Michael Baum in New York City in June 2023

McAnally says he’s also intentionally inviting in new experiences that hold the potential to spark life and career change. Last year, he and Baum (who’s also his business partner) took their family on a trip around the world, visiting all seven continents. It had been a distant dream, McAnally says, until the COVID quarantine made them realize they could take school and work with them. The final push arrived when their children’s beloved nanny, Chelsea Kramer, passed away from cancer.

“For us, it was an unimaginable loss,” he says. “She had been with us before they were born, and she was a young woman. It wasn’t fair. Our kids learned a hard lesson early. A lot of kids do, you know. But I think the trip was part of that, like, let’s go and let’s do something. And it was wonderful.”

The months-long adventure also left the family yearning for a new home. “We’ve seen a lot, we’ve done a lot — where are we gonna feel the happiest?” McAnally says, recalling the family’s decision-making process. The answer lay 2,100 miles west in Santa Barbara, California, and late last year, they made their move.

“For me, it’s hard to separate myself from the work in Nashville,” says McAnally, who still keeps quarters in Music City. “I was feeling really pulled between being in the studio and being with the kids. I can’t say enough about how great this move has been for us. We are a foursome. I’ve been gone so much in their lives, walking out the door, and it’s like, ‘See you, Dad.’ Now it’s like the four of us are supposed to be together, and I love that.”

<p>Robby Klein</p> Shane McAnally

Robby Klein

Shane McAnally

Famously a lifelong fan of country legend Barbara Mandrell, McAnally delights in his new hometown’s name. “Saint Barbara!” he exults. “If there are guardian angels on earth — fairy godmothers — she’s certainly been that for me.” As a boy, he avidly followed Mandrell’s life and music, and he kindled a friendship with the superstar while building his songwriting career. In 1997, he was in the Grand Ole Opry audience for her final performance before her retirement — the year she turned 49, his exact age now.

When that fact is pointed out to him, McAnally drops his jaw: “Is that true?”

He pauses to let the coincidence soak in, remembering the frustration he felt when his idol walked away from her career long before her peers were even considering retirement. But, he adds, he now gets it. “She moved into a different space,” he says, “and I respect it so much now.”

On the cusp of 50, McAnally is learning to feel at home in his own different space, too. (Though his kinship with Mandrell goes only so far: “I don’t have that in me where I could just be like, I’m out, never call me again. I’d be so afraid that in five years I would be like, wait, I want back in!”)

He admits the start of his sixth decade, arriving in October, does weigh on him. “It’s a weird thing to be talking about 50,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out, what do I want to do before the number? What do I want to have done?”

For a man who’s already reached his wildest dreams, he’s still dreaming.

<p>Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty</p> Usher, Shane McAnally, Ester Dean and Ryan Tedder on Songland

Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Usher, Shane McAnally, Ester Dean and Ryan Tedder on Songland

These days, his mind is particularly drawn to a desire to re-imagine Songland, the well-received TV reality show for songwriters that he helped helm for two seasons. McAnally reflects on how his role as a mentor fed him with what he’s craving today, especially being able to shine a light on the songwriters toiling in the anonymity that he once knew so well.

“It’s not like I have to have a TV show or I have to be famous,” he says. “That’s not it. It’s the way I felt doing it. I want to feel that, and so that's what I manifest. What does that look like? I’m not sure.”

And these days, with his different kind of drive — as someone who savors experience over outcome — not knowing in the moment doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

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