Writing For McGraw: Craig Wiseman
My old friend I apologize
For the years that have passed since the last time you and I
Dusted off those memories
But the running and the races
The people and the places
There was always somewhere else I had to be
And time gets thin my old friend.
– “My Old Friend,” Tim McGraw
The plaintive “My Old Friend” (co-written with Steve McEwen) was a Top 10 hit for country artist Tim McGraw in 2005, and one of Grammy-winning songwriter Craig Wiseman’s many successes with the country music superstar over the last 15 years.
“We didn’t really know that somebody was gonna die or anything … it just kind of happened,” Wiseman says from the Nashville office of Big Loud Shirt Music, the publishing company he founded in 2003. “We both had lost a couple friends – and it just turned into it.”
McGraw would later remind Wiseman that the two had briefly met in 1989 when Wiseman was playing drums in a band. His first night in Nashville, McGraw asked the drummer if he could come up and sing. Wiseman relented. “It pays to be a nice guy,” he says, smiling. “All that stuff your mom says turns out to be true. I was really happy that he caught me on a good night.”
But it wasn’t until several years later that Wiseman got a foot in the door, song-wise, with the McGraw camp. “I ran into Tim’s producer, Byron Gallimore, in the parking lot one day, and he said ‘Man, Tim likes what you’re doing, I love what you’re doing … send me some edgy lyrics.” So he and then-publisher Almo/Irving Music started sending songs over and, in a matter of weeks, McGraw cut “Where The Green Grass Grows (No.1 Billboard), “Everywhere” (No. 1) and “Hard On The Ticker” for his acclaimed 1997 album Everywhere. That was just the beginning of one of the most fruitful songwriter/artist pairings in recent memory. Then came hit singles “The Cowboy In Me” (No. 1), “Live Like You Were Dying” (7-week No. 1), “My Old Friend” (No. 6), “Nothin’ To Die For” (No. 6) and a number of other McGraw cuts. “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,” Wiseman says.
When asked about the origins of “Live Like You Were Dying” (co-written with Tim Nichols), arguably the biggest song of McGraw’s career, Wiseman expresses deep gratitude. “That song had so many angels around it. It was a really spiritual thing, because it came strong. Me and Tim’s instincts and intuitions just kept leading us.”
During a writing session, the two discussed a colleague’s recent cancer scare, and their experiences with family members who had gone through similar health issues. (Wiseman’s uncle went shark diving in Belize after learning he had a rare form of leukemia.) They wrote a verse and chorus and called it a day. A little time passed and Nichols called him one night saying his father had had quadruple bypass surgery – and that he and his brothers were flying home to go fishing with him. “I remember going in my totally dark living room, laying on the floor … and we wrote the second verse on the phone,” Wiseman recalls.
It’s clear Wiseman is a seize-the-day kind of guy who loves his job and doesn’t take it for granted, or rest on his laurels. “Getting to be a songwriter is a lot like a professional athlete,” he says. “You better be doing it every damn day. Hey, if you wanna play catch in the backyard with your little brother, that’s great. But you wanna play baseball for the Yankees? I really feel like there’s the song I’m supposed to write every day, and I try not to question that too much. I could write speed metal or punk rock this whole week. Thing is, nobody will ever hear it or know it ever happened. I just exercise that stuff right out of me. Next day I could write a nice song about your momma … next day Kenny [Chesney] cuts it and boom. That’s the true luxury of writing every day.”
His advice for aspiring and new professional songwriters? “Experience has taught me that the greatest thing that [screws] up songs is over- thinking,” he says. “I’ve learned you need to trust your first instinct. You’re never smarter than your angels.”
Click here to read our extended interview with Craig Wiseman.