Here at The Shotgun Seat, we succumbed long ago to being absolutely obsessed with demos. A truly great song shines not only ornately dressed but also stripped to a guitar and vocal, and there’s an invigorating energy that comes with a raw first recording, as if you’ve been allowed to put your ear to the door of the writing room and can hear the heartbeat of emotion turned melody pulsing faintly through the airwaves. Sometimes it’s rough, a little bleary eyed with the wonder of new life not fully mastered, and sometimes it struts through your speakers and strikes a pose, daring you to change anything in the recording other than the vocal. Like an old photograph of a first love, there’s a beauty in the visage of that younger version, perhaps vastly changed but always sharing the same eyes.
Shane McAnally’s demos are exciting for multiple reasons. Obviously it’s always cool to hear demos of songs that have become massive hits, especially when they’re placed with seemingly unlikely artists, like Kenny Chesney’s successful but surprising choice to cut “Somewhere With You.” However, McAnally, who used to be a solo artist before transitioning to being one of the most successful songwriters in country music right now, has an engaging vocal, and with recent production credits including Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, and Old Dominion, his attention to instrumental detail even in demos may be higher than some. McAnally also tends to be phrase-y as a writer, and it’s fascinating to track those trends through his repertoire as a cohesive body, both cut and otherwise, rather than spending an afternoon researching exactly which songs he’s laid a hand on.
Aside from the demos he’s released via Spotify, there’s an accompanying album of interviews, in which he takes the listener inside the writing room, describing how the song came to life. Several of the interviews also describe the processes and circumstances that accompany being a songwriter in Nashville, which in themselves are fascinating for those who don’t live and breathe Music Row.
Among the uncut group, “Riding in Cars” is a standout. The accompaniment is simple, with a simplicity that mirrors the light motion of the guitar in Barenaked Ladies’ “Pinch Me.” Lyrically, it’s image-heavy, focusing on a former love interest whom the protagonist envisions riding in cars with boys that aren’t him – “the night she packed she told me that she might come back… but she won’t.” “Riding in Cars” also contains some really beautiful imagery, with lyrics like “she’s got a paper airplane heart, even with the wind only goes so far.” Another album highlight is “Come Back To Me,” where the identity seeking energy of “Drops of Jupiter” meets the selfless heartache of “I Hope You Dance.” The hit demos are unsurprisingly excellent as well, like the extra-sassy “Downtown” or the extra-emotive “Say You Do.”