FLORENCE, Ala. — Mac McAnally remembers the words his mother spoke to him every time he left the house when he was teenager.
It wasn’t “have a good day” or “be good” or “stay out of trouble.”
He said she always told him “make use of yourself.”
McAnally took those words to heart, and they’ve stuck with him through nearly 50 years in the music business.
“I like being of use,” McAnally said, whether it’s writing songs, strumming a guitar, singing background vocals or producing an album. “I just like being in the service of music.”
On Saturday, McAnally will be honored with an induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, along with guitarist Eddie Hinton; guitarist/songwriter/producer Walt Aldridge; and folk musician and civil rights activist Odetta Holmes.
His family is from Belmont, Mississippi, but because the town didn’t have a hospital, McAnally was born in the nearby Red Bay Hospital in Alabama. A large portion of his musical career has taken place in the Shoals, and he still has a home in Sheffield.
McAnally was exposed to music at a young age, standing on a piano bench at maybe 4 years old singing while his mother played piano in church. In the third grade, he took piano lessons because his mother wanted him to “learn to play properly.”
“I played trombone in the band and negotiated the guitar,” he said.
If being paid means you’re a professional musician, McAnally has been a pro since age 13 after his parents gave their permission for him to play at honky tonks at the Alabama-Tennessee state line.
Realizing he could get paid to play music helped the young McAnally pursue the music business.
“My parents were sure I’d be a music minister at a church somewhere,” he said. “It was a family tradition, but they also wanted me to play in bands.”
After a pitch from Dean Lindley, McAnally’s parents allowed him to perform with Lindley’s band, Dean and the Reefers, at state line clubs like the Circle E in Iron City.
He started out playing piano in Lindley’s band and made $250 a week. They would perform four nights a week and reserve one night for rehearsals. McAnally would get home in the wee hours of the morning, then get up and go to school.
“He didn’t know what reefer meant, he just liked the sound of that word,” McAnally said. “He painted the name on the side of the van. He couldn’t figure out why all the hippies gave us peace signs. At 60, I’m still a Coral Reefer” as a member of Jimmy Buffett’s band.
McAnally was introduced to Buffett after Buffett received a copy of McAnally’s debut album.
He said Buffett sent him a letter, saying he was a fine writer and he planned to play McAnally’s songs. Buffett also said the two would become friends.
“I looked up to Jimmy,” McAnally said. “He was from my home state and had done well. We’ve never been anything but great buddies. We’re connected more ways … now. He has a million ideas and enough ambition for five counties.”
In 1980, McAnally played on Buffett’s “Coconut Telegraph,” which was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield. Buffett cut McAnally’s “It’s My Job” and they became songwriting partners.
Around 1994, McAnally said he would join Buffett on stage for a couple of acoustic songs “and I haven’t got off the stage since.”
“He’s got a great organization and they’ve just become a second family for me now,” McAnally said. “That’s also a good thing. I see things as a family man, and having a road family is a wonderful thing as well.”
McAnally said he prefers to blend in on the stage rather than be that guy in the spotlight. And his mother’s words, “make use of yourself,” inspired him to lend his services to other musicians.
“For me to start coming up to Muscle Shoals and sit at the feet of those guys in the studios was like winning the lottery,” he said.
Including his most recent release, “Southbound,” which was recorded with members of the Southern Mississippi University Symphony Orchestra, McAnally has released 14 albums and played on countless others.
“I’m not prolific compared to a lot of my contemporaries, because I write everything,” McAnally said. “I mostly consider myself in the service of others. It goes back to what my mom told me.”
His work ethic helped McAnally earn eight Musician of the Year awards from the Country Music Association, seven of which were consecutive.
A few of the artists he’s performed or recorded with include Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt and Roy Orbison.
“The fact that I’ve been able to sit in chairs and play music with those folks is remarkable,” McAnally said. “It’s beyond anything I aspired to do sitting in Belmont, Mississippi.”