The Music Maker

Chris McDonald in his Nashville studio.

By Erin Chesnut
Photos and video by Nathan Morgan

Chris McDonald found his calling at a young age. Or, rather, his calling found him. Much the way a chef assembles the pieces of a perfect meal, McDonald combines sounds, chords and harmonies to create music for listeners around the world.

“I got into music in the sixth grade. I was playing football, and something happened that changed my life—the Jackson High School band came and did a program at our school,” he says. “I had never really been exposed to much music except for my older sister playing records. It was like, ‘Wow! I want to do that! I want to be a part of that!’ … Pretty soon I was fascinated by how music is put together. I was taking things off records and trying to arrange.”

Not long after, McDonald (Martin ’77) put down his football helmet and picked up a trombone. By the time he reached high school, he was both composing for and, ultimately, directing the school pep band, playing in more than one independent band and taking college-level music theory lessons from his band director.

Now he has an established name in the Nashville music industry with hundreds of album credits under his belt. He has performed with vocal and instrumental artists from across the country and around the world, and his work can be heard on popular albums, movie soundtracks, corporate commercials and at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

“When I get an idea, or inspiration, it always starts with a melody—and I can usually hear it somewhat orchestrated. Then I’ll run to my office to write it down before it’s gone. I have a stack of little compositional ideas on my desk,” he says.

“The producer (for an artist) contacts me, and usually the tracks are already recorded—the rhythm and vocals and things. They know ahead of time that they want to put brass on this or strings on this, and they send me the tracks at that point,” he says. He then creates a mock-up of the additional music from existing audio files. If the arrangement is approved, he polishes the newly created sequence and hires musicians to record the new track as one complete piece.

“I want them to be moved in some way,” he says of his listening audience. “I like to make (the artists) cry. I’ve made Martina (McBride) cry, and I’ve made Sara Evans cry. It’s the best feeling. If I can give you goosebumps, I know I did a good job.”

While McDonald admits that much of his career has depended on being in the right place at the right time, he credits his experience at UT Martin for giving him a solid foundation.

“I was able to get anything I wrote played, which is the best way to learn,” he says, “They bent over backwards… They scheduled my stuff on concert band programs. I wrote all the music for the Miss UT Martin pageant, which I got paid for. My work-study (position) my last year there was writing all of the marching band music. That’s just the best thing in the world to hear everything played.”

McDonald played in every existing university ensemble as well as several of his own. His first university band, called Hangar, became the first rock-and-roll band to play at the original Opryland park in Nashville during McDonald’s freshman year at UT Martin.

Chris McDonald plays with his band Hangar in 1973

“They didn’t know what to do with us. We had to shave and cut off our hair… And we had to wear cowboy shirts,” he says. “They were still afraid of offending the country music fans.” The saxophone player and singers were allowed to have microphones, but the horns were considered too loud for visitors and played without mics. “We were the top-drawing performers that year, so they didn’t hire us back,” he remembers. “Although, they did eventually start including more popular music.”

McDonald also played with a university ensemble called “Today’s People” during his time at UT Martin. This group, since retired, played a variety of music both on campus and off—as far away as Canada, Iceland and Greenland during McDonald’s freshman year. He later established yet another band after graduating from UT Martin and played the southeastern fraternity circuit—a gig that ultimately put him in front of producers.

Young Chris McDonald holding a baritone saxophone
Chris McDonald, right, prepares to perform with UT Martin’s ensemble Today’s People in Greenland in 1973.

“Producers started coming out to hear us and hiring me to write brass for their records and hiring my band to play on the records,” he says. “There was a guy named Barry McDonald (no relation) who took me under his wing. He was writing for all the TV shows at the time, and he would take me out and show me how all that stuff worked.” Chris McDonald went on to tour the country in the early 1980s as singer Brenda Lee’s music director and arranger before returning to his Tennessee roots.

While his original loves are big band and rock and roll, McDonald has composed music in a variety of genres, from salsa and Latin pop to soaring orchestral arrangements and gospel hymns. He has eight big-band records under his name, recording as the Chris McDonald Orchestra and as Chris McDonald and Friends. His current independent label, Constant Dreamer Records, also has four records in distribution.

Chris McDonald
Chris McDonald in his Nashville studio.

“If the track is good, and the artist is good, and I believe in it, then I love whatever it is,” he says.

Although he plays the trombone and some piano, McDonald has developed an ear for all traditional instruments and can compose even for those he has never played himself.

“I think just from doing it so long, I know what every instrument is going to sound like in every register and how instruments are going to sound when they’re combined together,” he says. “People like to put you in boxes, like I was ‘the horn arranger.’ But then I started writing for strings, and people have asked me, ‘Well, can you write for brass?’”

He is always looking for new sounds and serves on The Recording Academy’s craft committee, which votes on arrangers and composers for Grammy awards.

“What I always consider, when I hear something, is, ‘Is it something I haven’t heard before?’ People know how to do certain things in certain ways, and it can be done really, really well. But it’s like, ‘I’ve heard a lot of people do that. I can do that.’ I want you to wow me somehow, either harmonically or by taking a song and treating it in an entirely different way. I think keeping things fresh is the value of new music,” he says.

Chris McDonald conducts the orchestra for the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant.

McDonald has a regional Emmy to his name for composing a PBS special featuring The Texas Tenors. He also has had one Grammy nomination make it to the show, although hundreds of his works have appeared in early rounds of Grammy consideration. He has album credits on 19 projects that have gone on to win Grammy awards and was named Nashville’s Arranger of the Year in 2011 by Nashville Music Pros.

His film orchestration credits include the soundtrack for All The Pretty Horses (a 2000 production starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz), which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, and An Unfinished Life (a 2005 film starring Jennifer Lopez, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman). McDonald has also arranged music for five years of the Country Music Association’s Country Christmas program, four years of the National Symphony Orchestra’s A Capitol Fourth fireworks production and the background music heard on Hollywood Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

His extensive list of album credits includes tracks by Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Ronnie Milsap, Celine Dion and Matchbox Twenty in the past 10 years, as well as Ricardo Arjona and Chayanne, both well-known performers in the Latin American music industry.

Chris McDonald
Chris McDonald in his Nashville studio.

McDonald’s longest-running gig has been working with the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant, held each June in his hometown of Jackson. He began playing with the pageant orchestra at 16 and was soon arranging material for them. He has been the orchestra’s conductor and arranger for more than 25 years.

McDonald creates music that crosses borders and refreshes the mind. Writing in the world’s only universal language, he helps artists speak to millions of fans and, in some ways, reminds listeners to stop and appreciate the beauty of this world.