Five years ago, Rachel McCann was living the adult American dream. She was married with two adult children, and had spent more than two decades as a professor of architecture at Mississippi State University in Starkville.
Then she came in contact with John Grisham. The award, that is.
“I had been just really kind of running myself crazy with working so hard,” McCann said about that time in her life. She was given the Grisham Master Teacher award, the highest teaching honor that one can receive at Mississippi State, which came with $10,000 in prize money.
As a reward to herself, McCann used the prize money to fund a five-week yoga teacher training session in Sedona, Ariz.
“And when I came out of it,” she said, “I kind of knew I wanted to make a change.”
Change, she did.
When she returned from yoga training, she was asked to sing backup on an album for fellow professor Bob Damm. During the session, she met fellow musician and future husband Josh Gray, who is the frontman of his own band, The Graysmiths.
Around this time, the urge to write more songs came back full force – but it would be another four years before she retired from Mississippi State, after 26 years of teaching and moved to Nashville.
In 2015, she married Gray and officially started her own band, Carnal Echo. Their music is a blend of jazz and R&B, with echoes of the styles of Norah Jones and Diana Krall.
The band also includes her husband and, on this tour, will feature pianist Katarina Pejak.
Looking back at her life, McCann’s path has been writing itself almost all her life. At age 10, she started playing piano for her church. At 16, she learned how to play the guitar. During her undergraduate years, she got into songwriting and played in a duo, but chose to major in architecture instead.
By the time she had established her family, her music was confined to playing guitar and singing in the choir at church, and tinkering a bit at home.
“I remember every time I walked up and down the stairs, I would sing, or if I was hanging up laundry, I would sing. I would just do it all of the time as kind of an outlet.”
This year, McCann released a four-song EP and is touring through Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Her song “Everyday I Leave You,” a smooth, mellow tune, is currently getting airplay on local public radio stations around Alabama.
Her performance on Friday at Caldwell Tavern in Anniston will actually be a three-band showcase, starting with The Graysmiths (McCann and Gray), then Carnal Echo (McCann, Gray and Pejak), then Pejak in a duo with drummer Slaven Ljulich.
“We’re the same four people, but we’re in three different bands,” McCann said.
Though it took her a while to get there, McCann knows this stage of her life was worth the wait.
“The yoga trainers were always at me to live less in my head and more in my heart, and if you think about it, that’s exactly what I’d just done,” she said. “I’d left a teaching career that’s all about knowledge and research, and moved into songwriting and singing – which has to come straight from the heart.”
Erin Williams is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star.