Tim McGraw Earns His Freedom
“Live Like You Were Dying” is such an interesting song because it’s about cancer, but it’s also very empowering and catchy.
It’s one of the best-crafted songs I’ve ever heard. Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols are fantastic. Of course it was at a time in my life when some things were going on, so that song struck a chord. My dad was sick and dying of cancer.
What do you remember about recording the song?
I wanted it to feel inspiring. I didn’t want it to feel like, “Oh my gosh, this guy is dying of cancer.” I wanted it to be the opposite of that. I wanted to take everything positive and we all had positive thoughts going into it.
I recorded that album with my band in upstate New York at Allaire Studios. We’ve done a couple of albums up there. My dad had just died a couple of weeks prior to this. We were in the studio around midnight. My uncle was there – my dad’s older brother. The studio was all decked out. We sent an interior designer up to the studio, which was at the top of a mountain with three feet of snow around it. There was a big fireplace and candles. I had a glass vocal booth built in the middle of the center of the room where I could conduct everybody in the band.
Anyway it was midnight or 1 o’clock in the morning when we decided to cut this song. No lights were on. All the candles were going. My uncle was sitting there on the couch. That was an inspired track.
That must have been an emotional night. How many times did you have to sing it to get the take you wanted?
You know, it just worked. I’m not going to spend a lot of time singing anything. I want to get it right but there comes a point of diminishing returns for me. But there have been songs I’ve had to sing a hundred times to get them right.
“Don’t Take The Girl” was one of them. It took me a while to get that song right. And “It’s Your Love” was one because the demo was a female singer. For some reason, girls can sing a guy’s demo better than a guy can sing a girl’s demo. It’s really hard to find the right key in the right spot.
But you don’t automatically rule out a demo with a woman’s vocal?
No, I don’t automatically rule it out but it makes me cringe because we’ll have a lot of work to do! (laughs) … To tell you the truth, typically I don’t listen to demos much. I listen to it once or twice. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, a lot of times you can go back and listen to the demo and think, “Golly, you didn’t phrase that right” or “Oh, you changed the words.” I don’t do that intentionally. I really feel like I want to get the meaning of the song and translate it in my own way.
Do aspiring songwriters have a level playing field with you?
I think so. Look, it’s not easy. I’m not going to lie and say anybody can get a song to me any time they want. But if you look back on my career, I’ve had a lot of songs that were the songwriter’s first cut. I think on just about every album, there’s a songwriter or two that had their first cut.
What’s the reward in that for you?
It’s when you run across a guy, or somebody’s son or daughter or wife, and they tell you that getting that cut changed their life. That’s a reward for me because there are a lot of guys who have the talent that end up coming here for a couple of years, then leave and never show up again.
Do you regret not writing more and getting those songwriting royalties?
You always have regrets about not getting royalties [laughs]. No, but I’ve always written for every album. I’m just not a songwriter who’s going to be able to sit down and write every day. I might write a song every couple of months and write a good one every couple of years, maybe. It has to come to me in an inspired way. I can’t just sit down and write.
I’ve been doing this almost 25 years and to have a long career and a sustainable career, it’s got to be about the song. There have been tons of guys who only record what they write, and they’ve done great, but you have to let the song win. It’s different for every artist, but for me, I have to let the song win. I’m certainly not going to put myself in the category of great songwriters.
How much songwriting do you think you’ll be doing from here on out?
Like I say, I’m always writing and if something sticks, it sticks. I get to write with great songwriters in town. Lori McKenna is one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters who’s ever walked the planet. I get to write with her. The Warren Brothers are friends of mine and I write with them all the time. Lance Miller is a great songwriter. Tom Douglas – you can’t get any better than that. I write a lot of stuff but it’s got to stick.
One of these days it would be fun to go back and pick my favorites of things that I’ve written that never made an album, and do an album of that. And now that I can, I just might do it.