Album Review: Mac McAnally - “Southbound: The Orchestra Project”

With a novel way to go about a career-spanning ‘best of’ project, the 8 Time Musician of the Year CMA winner (and nominee again in 2017) serves up a-list material on his latest recording for Mailboat Records.

What do you do when you’ve never really had a big hit as a solo artist but it feels like time for a ‘greatest hits’ project? Well, if you’re Mac McAnally, you collect some of your best (or favorite) songs and have talented composers arrange them within an orchestral setting and deliver your ‘hits’ in a brilliant, sweeping concept. Quite simply, these songs, already some of the best musical compositions in modern music, stand out even more so with arrangements that prove that classic orchestral instrumentation makes everything sound even better than it already was.

Take “Miracle,” a song that with a melody Mac McAnally had at the age of 13. Here, the song feels like a poignant moment from an indie movie that could be made about this story song. “The Opposite Of Love,” a song with sweeping strings and orchestral backing up a lyric where the problems of today’s fractured world take center stage but where Mac, ever the optimist, believes that we can overcome such issues to have a better life and world in the future.

Perhaps the most well-known song here (thanks to a Kenny Chesney cover), “Back Where I Come From” is an ode to Mac’s home state of Mississippi and here he reinterprets the song and it is all the better for the arrangement. Woodwinds and strings serve as the lush intro into a song about the differences between folks with jobs with or without responsibility and why they do what they do (‘it’s my job’ they say). The anchor of this album is the 30 year old “Southbound,” the title track to this collection of orchestrated Mac McAnally classics. Mac calls it the “slightly more academic version of ‘Back Where I Come From’” and he’s probably right. It may be my favorite Mac McAnally song. The story is strong and work better coming from a 60 year old man than they do from the 30 year old man who wrote the song as nostalgia is best served coming from someone with enough life to have it.

“Zanzibar” and “Blame It On New Orleans,” both songs from 2015’s A.K.A. Nobody, were always begging for orchestral arrangements (and as a side note, one can’t help but feel Mac was inspired to record an orchestral project when he created the orchestral sounds for “With A Straight Face” on that project in 2015). Orchestral music can be haunting and it serves perfect accompaniment for “All These Years,” a song which Sawyer Brown took to the Top 5 in the 1990s. Here, the simple song’s melody plays out as we hear the story of a marriage on the rocks thanks to adultery. “When Trouble Comes Around” showcases how good of a singer Mac really is as it’s a song made for jazzy torch singers like Michael Buble or Diana Krall. The closer “Working Prayer” is basically the new song of the album and it all about faith in that our time on earth is exactly as it was supposed to be.

That song is a fitting ending to a wonderful album project. The kind of album that true fans of music should want to hear. The longtime sideman to the likes of Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett and producer of many of Sawyer Brown and Chris LeDoux’s biggest hits, Mac McAnally has always seemed a reluctant front man but truth be told he’s one of Nashville’s best kept secrets. He’s far more than ‘just a sideman’ and Southbound: The Orchestral Project proves this.