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Easy inspiration

Hit songs just sort of write themselves in Mac McAnally's mind

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

By Jerry Sharpe

Mac McAnally has penned more than 300 songs, but aspiring songwriters should go elsewhere for advice. "[I'm a] disaster when it comes to telling anyone how to write a song," he says.

That's because the 41-year-old Belmont, Miss., native is one of those rare -- some say gifted -- people who just hear songs in their head and write them. Among his successes are Alabama's "Old Flame," Reba McEntire's "Starting Over," Wayne Newton's "Change of Heart" and Vince Gill's "Pocket Full of Gold."

But McAnally's career transcends pen and paper. He's also worked as a producer for Sawyer Brown, as a guitarist in studio sessions and as a performer. It's the latter role that brings him to Pittsburgh this week: He'll perform tomorrow night at Nick's Fat City, South Side, and the following night with Jimmy Buffett at the Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre.

Still, performing isn't exactly what McAnally calls work.

"I'm supposed to be a songwriter," he says. "All the other things -- singin' and all that -- are just fun things, not work."

He's the first to acknowledge that his just-released album, "Word of Mouth," may never crack Top 40 country radio. But, as he says, it contains 10 songs that just had to be written.

"My heart is with the songwriter who works disciplined hours. But each songwriter has got to do what works for him or her. I'm lucky or blessed enough to just have songs rattle around in my head until they fester to the point where I just have to write 'em."

He wrote "Old Flame" with friend Don Lowery when Alabama was a relatively unknown band playing at a steakhouse in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The band rode the song to stardom, turning it into an anthem and magnet for lighter-waving fans. McAnally says the chorus came to him during a plane flight.

Not unlike "Company Time" for Linda Davis. He dozed off one day and "when I woke up the song was there."

What makes a song a hit?

"The hook helps. For instance, on 'Old Flame' the chorus soars like a hymn even though the song is a sad one about love's uncertainties."

McAnally keeps a home with his wife and three children in Nashville but does most of his music work in his studio in Muscle Shoals.

Sometimes songs come to him while driving back and forth.

"But I'm from Mississippi, so I don't want to move too fast. I write maybe 12 or 15 songs a year compared to about 100 for ambitious songwriters."

-- Jerry Sharpe covers country music for the Post-Gazette

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