ACM Electric Guitarist of the Year Rob McNelley Talks Taking the Mic With New Song ‘Right Back to You’

As Nashville session A-lister Rob McNelley releases a hooky piece of power-pop, “Right Back to You,” on June 28, the karma-themed song represents a full-circle moment that provides a clue to his Music City ascendance.

McNelley moved to Tennessee from Columbia, Ohio, in 1995 to pursue life as a writer-artist, and the recording captures a raw, angsty voice that few people know about — because he never quite attained his original goal. Instead, he became a high-level guitarist, whose work is likely heard multiple times an hour on most commercial country radio stations. McNelley has appeared on singles by Lainey Wilson, Luke Combs, Luke Bryan, Jelly Roll, Jon Pardi and Parker McCollum, and the Academy of Country Music named him electric guitar player of the year on June 17. He’ll collect his trophy, his fourth ACM guitar award, during the ACM Honors on Aug. 21 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

“Right Back to You” is the first of a series of new releases he is plotting during 2024 as a frontman, and it’s a return to the artistic view that guided his rise when he became a studio player. Music listeners tend to absorb the song and recall it through the voice of its singer — after all, people don’t often sing keyboard parts in the shower. Thus, McNelley’s role as a lead singer helped him know how to approach the role of a lead guitarist.

“That kind of informed me a little bit about how you’ve got to be simple while they sing,” he says. “That [melody] should be the most important thing that people hear at that moment. There are plenty of other players I know that have never sang a song in their life that know how to do that. But I don’t know what their process would be like. I do feel like that was a huge benefit for me to have come up being in bands, writing songs, trying to get other musicians to do what was in my head.”

McNelley is so tuned in to that concept that producer Dann Huff (Brantley Gilbert, Keith Urban) recently challenged him to break the rules a bit and play over the singer on a song that needed some tension and a little sonic war. McNelley has solid rock credentials — he played for about seven years during the last decade in Bob Seger’s touring band — so he was able to give Huff exactly what he wanted.

“He’s got a punk side to him, which is phenomenal, which he’s never lost,” Huff says.

It fits his history. McNelley was born the son of Bob McNelley, the frontman for country-rock band McGuffey Lane, which landed four titles on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in the 1980s during a run with two Atlantic-affiliated imprints. The band partied hard, and plenty of musicians hung out at the McNelley household, teaching him the guitar almost by osmosis.

“I didn’t take lessons,” McNelley says. “I was just around all these musicians that would show me things — show me a chord here or there, or show me a little lick or a riff or whatever. I’d run off to my bedroom and do nothing but that for hours.”

His father died from an apparent suicide when McNelley was 17, but he left his son with an intense appreciation for music, particularly musicians whose expression was fairly lean — McNelley cites George Harrison, Muddy Waters, Keith Richards and Chuck Berry as primary influences.

Once he moved to Nashville in his late 20s, McNelley hit the road with a parade of bands and worked on his writing and vocal performance skills. But the guitar work set him apart among the music community’s decision-makers. His breakthrough came when he was hired for the early Lady A albums by producer Paul Worley, who rose through the ranks as a studio guitarist — and, coincidentally, produced some of the McGuffey Lane records in the ’80s. Worley showcased McNelley’s melodic tendencies and encouraged him to play succinctly.

“He was great at paring down the ideas that I would come in with that would be too much, you know, as a younger, inexperienced person,” says McNelley. “He was really good at saying, ‘Well, this is all great that you can do all that, but this little part of the idea is the essence of what you’re doing,’ and getting me to think along the lines of simpler tones that cut through a track, simpler ideas that really stand up.”

He piled up credits with Brett Young, Carrie Underwood, Carly Pearce, Corey Kent, Thomas Rhett, Tyler Hubbard and Rascal Flatts, just to name a few. Because of his history as a vocalist, McNelley understood the artists’ viewpoint and gained their confidence as he expanded his résumé.

“He always shows up ready to rock, ready to do whatever each song needs,” Brian Kelley says. “He’s got great feel, a great ear, a great country music history, knowledge of what tones can work and how to place a solo to make something sound full.”

McNelley’s current ACM victory is his first for electric guitar player of the year. His three prior wins — in 2013, 2017 and 2019 — came when the organization lumped acoustic and electric musicians in the same category. The ACM split that field in 2021.

Despite that change, this year’s win was similar to the previous three. After the initial nomination, he forgot about it until people he hadn’t heard from in months bombarded him with text messages during a session. What separates this year’s honor most is that the sideman recognition comes as McNelley begins rolling out new music as a lead artist. That project allows him to get back in touch with his original motivations, though he has no regrets about the path he has taken.

“When I started accepting gigs that took me on tour, I probably realized what people recognize, and what jumps out, is my guitar playing,” he says. “I love to do that just as much. I love being a sideman.” 

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