Before he became one of Nashville’s biggest behind-the scenes players — collaborating with Kacey Musgraves and Kelly Clarkson, winning Grammys and CMTs and, most recently, a CMA Nov. 9 — Shane McAnally was growing up in Mineral Wells (population 15,000), a town 50 minutes west of Fort Worth known for its Crazy Water.
McAnally’s success might have some people wondering just what’s in that water.
“When he was young, we’d tell him to pick up his toys,” his mother, Margaret Terry recalls, “and he’d sing Johnny Paycheck’s ‘Take This Job and Shove It.’”
McAnally was unlike his peers growing up. While others were playing sports and fishing, he was listening to Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton — and writing his own music, too.
“He was voted Most Talented in our senior class,” says Rhett Warren, one of his best friends from Mineral Wells, “so it wasn’t only me who saw the talent.”
No, Mineral Wells wasn’t exactly the epicenter for music. But that didn’t stop a young McAnally from showcasing his skills at every local gig he could score, even at the Crazy Water Hotel. McAnally simply wouldn’t pass up any chance to entertain.
“Mineral Wells, to me, is the perfectly imperfect small Texas town,” McAnally says. “I still drive into that town and feel 17.”
Warren says people in Mineral Wells don’t see McAnally as their “famous friend” — they just see him as Shane, whose passion for music eventually took him to where he wanted to be.
In addition to his work with Musgraves and Kelly, he’s written for Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney. But it’s still those closest to him who can provide his greatest inspiration.
“Anything you said to him he’d jot down for a song,” Terry chuckles. “One day, one of the songwriters he was working with said, ‘What’s going on across the street at your neighbors?’ I said, ‘They’re either selling Mary Kay, smoking Mary Jane or daddy’s doing Mary … and then they wrote ‘Merry Go Round.’” That song became Musgraves’ breakout moment.
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Of course, McAnally’s journey to that point was much like a typical county road, with all the bumps you encounter along the way. In 2007, McAnally was couch-surfing in L.A. after losing his home and having his car repossessed. He was also struggling with his sexuality, so that when he met his future husband, Michael Baum, on a chance trip to Palm Springs, he had an important decision to make.
“Michael wasn’t a person who could be told, ‘I’m going to keep this a secret,’” McAnally says of Baum. “He was like, ‘If we’re going to be together, I can’t hide.’ At that point, I I’d had no success anyway. I’d lost my house, I’d lost my car, and I met someone who was saying, ‘I love you anyway, except I can’t do this if you’re in the closet.’ So I came out.”
At that point, everything changed. “Before, I was always worried about the pronouns I was using. I worried: ‘Will a good ol’ boy sing a song if a gay guy wrote it?’ I was in the closet. And it was represented in my work. That stopped.” Indeed, McAnally began being more honest in his music. “One of the things that changed was the authenticity,” he says. “I was telling the truth.”
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Finally, in 2008, McAnally got his big break when fellow Texan LeeAnn Womack recorded his song “Last Call.” He moved to Nashville to pursue country music full-time, then scored his first No. 1 hit in 2010, writing Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You.”
Terry says her son was too in love with writing and performing to ever commit to anything else. And that gumption to see his dream through, to keep putting in the work and keep making the right connections — no matter how long it might take — is what finally helped him get over the hump.
“The first turning point,” McAnally says, “was letting go of the idea of getting rich.” Switching his path away from performance toward songwriting is what McAnally credits for his successes.
“I don’t think most of us are that brave,” family friend Serena Wigginton, whom McAnally refers to as his “second mom,” says.
To date, McAnally has penned 40 No. 1’s and become a go-to collaborator for Music City A-Listers, from Miranda Lambert to Maren Morris to Sam Hunt.
He’s won a batch of awards, including three Grammys. And he earned five nominations at this year’s CMA Awards, taking home the award for Musical Event of the Year for “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” by Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde.
Awards and trophies like those may just be the most recent on the mantle of his mother’s Mineral Wells home, but for a kid who was always born to be what he became, they still mean the world to those back home in the town that shaped him.
“I just get so excited in my heart,” his mother says of watching her son’s career continue to flourish. “It just wants to jump out of my chest.”
Cover promo photo by Robby Klein. This piece originally ran on WFAA.com.