Let’s talk about Tim McGraw for a minute. You’ve had a lot of success over the years with him cutting your songs and releasing many as singles, with No.1’s and Top 10’s that followed. Did you have a personal relationship with him early one in his career?
Well it’s weird, and luckily I was actually playing drums. I was a drummer for 10 years I played six nights a week back in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Then I came up here to Nashville, and our band started off in Madison seven nights a week, six hours a night, $25 a night. We actually worked our way up to the two big gigs in town—The Stockyard, and they had a house band there—and then the Hall of Fame just off Music Row. A lot of people have turned this into a big thing, but it turns out that Tim’s first night in town…and he told me this at the first number one party…he said, “Man, I came in there and I asked to sing”…and you can imagine you have to kind of manage the sit-ins, because if you’re one of those bands that lets a bunch of people sit in, you can’t hold a crowd doing open mic night. So he said, “I asked if I could sing and I said I was from Louisiana and I knew you were from Hattiesburg…” We’re about 100 miles from each other –he said, “Man, you were really nice when you got me up to sing and I’ve always appreciated that.” I had no recollection because there was just a sea of that. Most of the time it was me going, “Look I’m really sorry. Can you try to come again?” So it was really nice. It pays to be a nice guy. All that stuff your mom says turns out to be true. I was really happy that he caught me on a good night and I wasn’t too frazzled or whatever. A lot of people have said, “Oh, they were buddies from way back…” but not really. In fact, we have a very professional relationship. It’s just been…he likes my stuff. He cuts my stuff. He’s always great about that. At the time, he was kind of the Eric Church-y guy. He was off the radar. He had a couple of songs like “Don’t Take The Girl,” but he was in that class of…maybe 199…like Brooks and Dunn and Vince Gill. They were the powerhouses—those institutions that were just cranking.
Some of it was edgier stuff too.
It wasn’t the fact that it was edgy. At the time it was the big things, where half the album had strings on them. It was that stuff. It was the Rebas and the big records. And there was McGraw trying to come out. It was a little bit more…well I got it, because I came from bars. It was kind of a bar band thing. And luckily I ran into Tim’s producer, Byron Gallimore, in the parking lot one day. I really appreciated that, instead of him talking to me about songs, he said, “Man, Tim likes what you’re doing. I love what you’re doing. Send me some edgy lyrics.” That’s all he said. He didn’t say, “I want this kind of song” or anything. So I went back to my publishing company and just strictly thought, ‘Okay edgy lyrics.’ I had this one weird song that I had just written called “Hard On The Ticker” that’s really fun. Al Anderson, who Tim had cut songs on a couple of times, made a record called Bang Bang Bang. I sent over five songs and four of them got on a hold immediately. They said, “We’re gonna find days we can cut these things.” From that, I wrote “Where The Green Grass Grows” and sent that over there. Then lastly, “Everywhere” was a real last minute thing. Me and Mike Reid wrote that and got that over there. But yeah, on that record, I had two number ones, and “Everywhere” kind of—I don’t know, I kind of thought he was after “Don’t Take The Girl” and “Indian Outlaw.” Those were both very impactful songs, but other people have said that I was one of the writers that really helped kind of cement his place. That’s debatable because he gets a lot of great songs from a lot of writers. But it’s been a huge honor to be considered a part of his team, coming up with stuff and being responsible for whatever little part of the sound. It was great.
So were you mainly going through Gallimore to get a lot of those songs to Tim, as opposed to the pluggers?
Yeah, as a matter of fact, that’s what happened. It kind of helped me, too. I was at a place called Almo/Irving at the time. Kent Robbins and Mike Reid wrote there, and I was heating up some. I was getting Confederate Railroad cuts, and Vince Gill and Reba. So me doing that, and all of a sudden pitching those and getting those cuts…and that many, to get four out of five songs…they ended up cutting four out of the five songs, and some didn’t make the project. All of the sudden, needless to say, everybody over there was sending all kinds of stuff [to McGraw’s camp]. I realized one of the interior things a songwriter deals with when you get a door opened. If you write for a big company, all of the sudden everybody over there is trying to cram through that door too. But it’s a competitive business. Imagine that. It was just interesting though.
So this was around 1990?
Yeah, straight up 1990 when Almo signed me.
So that was your first publishing deal, and then you went to BMG. Did you have any mentors along the way at those companies? Were there things that stuck with you?
Chris Oglesby was really good. He saw that I was just trying to work hard. I think that’s the main thing. We’re talking American Songwriter magazine here… I realize now as a publisher that a lot of songwriters. . . You can’t help it, but you think as a young songwriter, ‘This is the one song that’s gonna change it.’ And it’s not really that. Chris says, “Here’s what I remember—you’d bring in some songs and I’d like a couple and say maybe you ought to work on these.” And some of them they’d get you to rewrite—not really just a rewrite, but to see first off if you can kind of get along with people, and you’re not so precious [about your songs] that you’re gonna throw a chair through a window if somebody says something negative. Everybody’s just trying to write their best song. Chris said, “I’d send you home with a rewrite, and you’d come back and hadn’t done the rewrite but you’d play me two more songs you wrote from the ideas you got from messing with the rewrite.” He goes, “And that’s the thing—it’s just that passion to create…to be so passionate that it’s just flying off of you.” Because if you’ve got that kind of mental frame, you’re gonna get better. [Sometimes there are young writers] who write horrible songs, but they write lots and lots of horrible songs and they’re just cranking them out. You just get better.
Getting to be a songwriter is a lot like a professional athlete. First off, if you’re gonna be playing baseball or football professionally, you better be doing it damn every day. These songwriters will come up to me and go, “I wrote my annual song.” Would you go try out for the Yankees if you played baseball once a year? And that’s fine, because there’s a part of songwriting that just feeds the soul. That’s great, but that has nothing to do with “I want to make a house…I want to do this for a living.” Once again it’s, “Hey you wanna play catch in the backyard with your little brother, that’s great. You wanna play baseball for the Yankees?” They both involve bats, balls and gloves, but they’re two completely different ballgames. That was the main thing though—just writing, just going crazy, just being on fire and loving it. That’s what I look for. I look for people who I’m gonna have to put in far more effort in getting out of their way than I am in getting them going.
It’s hard as heck to gets songs cut these days, with fewer overall slots, singles and album releases than ever before—and of course, way fewer outside cuts.
Tim McGraw is very courageous as an artist. He continues to cut [outside songs] and go out and push the boundaries at the expense of commercial success. He’s done several records lately that haven’t been a string of number ones, but at the same time, I get it. I mean why in the hell would you do the 21st album with a “Where The Green Grass Grows” on it. I get it. I totally applaud that. I’ve written some stuff that I thought maybe he should have cut, but then I hear his record and figure out he just went in a different direction—and again, a courageous direction. That album is probably not gonna sell four million copies, but Tim’s on this journey. We’re all on this journey.
I would like to think I’m not writing the same stuff I was 15 years ago, or I’d be going crazy if I had to. On the songwriter side of things, I have been very blessed with a lot of success; and therefore, there’s been a lot of people who assume that I just sit down with Tim and Kenny and I’m listening to their stuff and I’m just. . . I have never ever done that. I just write songs. I do co-write a lot. If we’re not entertained, smiling and digging it, how the hell can you sit there with somebody and be trudging through it and turn around and expect that this song is gonna set the world on fire? If it didn’t set you on fire, how in the hell’s it gonna set the world on fire? So the first requisite that a song has to meet is that it has to fire me up, and it shuts me down thinking, oh, so and so is cutting what. Especially, when I started getting successful, they’d send an artist to write with me. They’d say, “It’s Thursday morning, I’m cutting Monday, we need a lead off single, and you’re the guy to make it happen.” Dude, this might need to be the day that I need to write a song about…[whatever else.] I mean seriously. I really feel like there’s the song I’m supposed to write every day and I try not to question that too much. That’s the luxury of writing every day. I could write speed metal punk rock this whole week. The thing is nobody will ever hear it or know it ever happened. That goes back to the point of artists getting trapped in their “thing.” They can’t cut a speed metal punk record. It would end their career. I could spend three months writing it—have fun and just exercise all that stuff right out of me. Then I’d come back the next day and write a nice song about your momma, and the next day Kenny [Chesney] cuts it and boom. It’s like nothing ever happened. That’s the true luxury as a writer. Especially now, since I have ProTools and do all that kind of stuff…I could even record exactly how I want it. I could get really weird now—and I do get weird.