Meaning Behind Cole Swindell’s ACM Winning Hit “She Had Me At Heads Carolina”

Jo Dee Messina secured arguably her most enduring hit in 1996 with “Heads Carolina, Tails California.”

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“It was so free,” Messina recently told American Songwriter about her breakthrough hit. “It was so freeing. Like flip a coin, heads Carolina, tails California as long as we’re going somewhere together, I got a quarter, let’s just flip a coin. I loved that sentiment.”

Now, the Tim Nichols and Mark D. Sanders penned track has been given a second life thanks to Cole Swindell and his 2022 hit “She Had Me At Heads Carolina.”

How did Swindell come to interpolate Messina’s hit in his ACM Song of the Year winning anthem? Find out, below.

Behind the Song

In the lyrics for “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” Swindell falls in love with a girl because of her affinity for ’90s country music. She’s got the bar in the palm of her hand / And she’s a ’90s country fan like I am, he sings in the pre-chorus.

To further drive home the sense of nostalgia in the song, Swindell interpolated the chorus of Messina’s hit into his own.

“It’s crazy how it all happened,” Swindell told MusicRow. “I was talking to Rusty [Gaston] and Anna [Weisband] over at Sony about how inspired I’ve been by them since I’ve been working with them. We were talking about songs and what I was looking for for my next album.”

“We got to talking about what if we took a ’90s song that I loved and put a different spin on it,” he continued. “That was how the idea came together.”

Gaston added, “I was thinking about how we could find ways to create new value for Sony’s catalog—more than just getting a hot new artist to re-record a Merle Haggard song. I believe ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California’ is the number one most popular female country karaoke song in the world. Thinking of that and knowing that that song was in this catalog, I talked to Cole.”

Swindell then wrote “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” with fellow country heavyweights Ashley Gorley, Jesse Frasure, and Thomas Rhett.

Though Swindell had Sony backing him and a host of top-tier songwriters in his corner, Messina and the original songwriters could have easily not been on board with the project. Luckily, all parties were interested in Swindell’s fresh take.

“I was kind of taken aback that they chose ‘Heads Carolina’ as the song,” Messina told Billboard. “Out of any song they could have chosen from that time, the fact that they chose [it] was an honor. I heard about ‘She Had Me at Heads Carolina’ from the original writers of ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California.’ They let me know the song was written and sent me a copy of it.”

She continued, “The success of the song makes me happy for Cole. I think that Tim Nichols and Mark D. Sanders put together a timeless theme and melody. We know they wrote something timeless because at our shows today, even before the release of Cole Swindell’s single, ‘Heads Carolina’ has had a huge response that hasn’t died down over the years.”

ACM Wins and Collaborative Performance

While Messina was happy to give the project her blessing, she further expressed her support by joining Swindell on stage at the ACM Awards last week.

Messina was first to the stage, performing her original “Heads Carolina” chorus before Swindell jumped in to sing his new lines: I was out with the boys, catchin’ up at a neon light / Didn’t know ’til we walked in, it was karaoke night.

Messina later joined back in for her original version, bringing the audience to their feet. Revisit the performance, below.

Swindell swept this year’s ACMs, taking home both Song of the Year and Single of the Year for “She Had Me At Heads Carolina.”

“I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, because I wanted to be a songwriter,” Swindell said in his acceptance speech. “Jo Dee, we wouldn’t have this song without you making the original song a hit. Thank you so much.”

(Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

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