Mick Jagger has Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen had Clarence Clemons. Jimmy Buffett's onstage foil/sidekick has for decades been a very large, congenial ginger named Mac McAnally.
With a massive helmet of Hagar the Horrible-thick hair, dry-rubbed Southern wit and considerable tallness, McAnally does not exactly fit into the Caribbean-escapist vibe conjured up by Buffett's beach blanket blowouts. But since the 1990s, the Mississippi native has served as Buffett's onstage counterpoint, guitarist and producing and writing partner. (He also has, during performances of "It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere," served as Alan Jackson.)
McAnally will do all of these things at Buffett's Feb. 2 date in Charleston (Ilo Ferreira, a Buffett discovery and Cape Verde native who performed at Remy's last spring, will open the show). The concert marks the first time Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band have played a concert in Charleston since 1997-- which is long enough ago that the people at the Margaritaville store on King Street couldn't remember. But that's not to say they haven't played in town.
"We've rehearsed in Charleston for years," McAnally said by phone earlier this month. "But during the time I've been in the band we've probably only done two or three shows there. We sort of hub out of Charleston when we play Columbia or Raleigh or Charlotte, but it's a rare treat for us to play there."
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McAnally's glad to be back: Charleston, he said, is "one of the best cities in the U.S."
"We're coming as tourists with dinner in mind," he said with a laugh. "There's probably five or six meals I've had planned for a month and a half. At this point, you know, food is the primary vice for the Coral Reefer Band."
McAnally has written or co-written nearly an album's worth of Buffett's songs: "License to Chill," "Last Man Standing," "Coast of Carolina," "It's My Job" and "Semi-True Story," among others.
But apart from Buffett's band, McAnally has cultivated a fine career as a prolific songwriter and performer in his own right. He's been named the CMA Awards' Musician of the Year four years running, most recently in November. Kenny Chesney recorded his songs "Back Where I Come From" and "Down the Road," and the latter netted the duo a Grammy nomination in 2010.
Last year he released "Live in Muscle Shoals" on Buffett's Mailboat label, a document of a 2010 performance at the W.C. Handy Festival. True to form (and the festival's location), the disc is heavy on story songs and McAnally's country-fried between-song banter. "I may be the only human being on the planet that's ever sat on the beach in Bora Bora, Tahiti, and missed Sheffield, Ala.," he quips in the introduction to "Down By The River," and his aw-shucks demeanor and beefy Southern accent indicate he probably means it.
The live album, he said, has been a long time coming.
"People have asked me as long as I've been playing, which is the paleozoic folk-music period, 'You need to put out something that has the storytelling you do onstage,' " McAnally said.
The problem, he said, is that he's sy editor. "I have a low tolerance for myself," he said. "I've been listening to me a lot, and when I get free time the idea of listening to a bunch of live Mac shows and picking out the best versions has never appealed to me."
The idea came together, he said, when organizers of the W.C. Handy Fest asked him to do something "out of his element."
"So I got a phenomenal band I could never afford to take out on the road and had a great time. The audience walked away saying something special had happened, I didn't have to sort through it, I didn't have to, you know, listen to five versions of 'It's a Crazy World.' It's a true live album."