With its spiky tempo, light storyline, and reliance on an existing ’90s country song for large portions of its lyrics and melody, it seems Cole Swindell would have been in a jovial mood when he co-wrote his last single, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina.
To tell the truth, it lacked repeated deadlines to be able to integrate a collaboration of Thomas Rhett on the Stereotype album, and had led Warner Music Nashville (WMN) to believe they had already written the song, which features an interpolation of Jo Dee Messina’s 1996 hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” So Swindell was actually stressed when he walked into the room at Nashville’s Rhythm House in early 2022 with Rhett and co-writers Ashley Gorley (“Take My Name,” “Play It Again”) and Jesse Frasure. (“If I Was a Cowboy”, “Dirt on My Boots”).
“We’re already against the clock – and then too, you’re rewriting a huge, huge hit that we all grew up on,” Swindell says. “It’s just a lot of pressure.”
The song is a direct result of Swindell’s participation in Rhett’s 2021 Center Point Road tour, where they considered the possibility of a duet incorporating a 90s country song from their youth. Swindell mentioned the idea to his publisher, the CEO of Sony Publishing/Nashville Gaston Rustywho noted that Messina’s inaugural hit was one of the most played karaoke songs of that era in the company’s extensive catalog.
Gaston had Swindell at “Heads Carolina”. The publisher also called Frasure, whose affinity for R&B made him quite familiar with tweens (songs that incorporate parts of an existing copyright), and asked him to develop a musical framework inspired by from “Heads Carolina, Tails California”.
“The trick is how do you take the chorus of the song and make it something new and relevant – not just for the genre, but also for this artist?” Frasure said. “Obviously he’s a male artist, and you take this female classic and try to do it justice and not just a hack job. And you want the real parts to be relevant.
When the writers met, Frasure’s initial instinct for a duet was to mirror the plot of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s 1982 single “The Girl Is Mine,” with Swindell and Rhett playing two friends vying for the title. affection of a woman. He didn’t quite fly.
“The key to a great country song is like, ‘OK, either this has happened before, or I could see this happen…’ just so there’s realism about it,” Gorley says. “There was all of that by the time we were done, but we went through a lot of different scenarios to get there.”
They spent, by one estimate, three or four hours pursuing duet storylines, including one in which Rhett served as a wingman in Swindell’s song. But Rhett, whose biography is the source of much of his music, didn’t feel comfortable as a married man singing on the cruise for a date, and they eventually decided on it. write for a solo man. From there, it soon became apparent that they could build the plot around the singer becoming romantically involved with a girl covering Messina at a karaoke bar. They took inspiration from Swindell’s story — as well as Rhett’s — by rhyming “California tails” with “a boy from South Georgia,” and the session went quickly from there, with writers bouncing between the chorus and verses as they filled out the narrative.
Where the original celebrates a young couple looking for adventure, the tween ends with the bar closing and then innocently parting ways. The song is therefore a nostalgic celebration of a lifetime memory, rather than a lifetime partner.
“It could’ve easily been that song — that ‘Look How We Met’ — but I just think it could be anyone when it brings you back. [this way]notes Swindell. “And then this line is important to me: ‘I still see that girl every time I hear that song. “”
They specifically relied on the original melody in key moments, but also found short detours, balancing the familiarity of the original with the need for a new piece that could stand on its own.
“We haven’t strayed too far from it, but we have enough new material to create a new song,” Gorley says. “And we also wanted it to sound like a hit if anybody’s ever heard that, which is another thing you have to think about. You’ve got 13-year-old girls who listen to country radio and think maybe -being “Wow, that’s awesome” and having no idea what the original was. I think we kind of accomplished all of that.
Additionally, they needed approval from “Heads Carolina” songwriters Tim Nichols (“Live Like You Were Dying”, “Girls Lie Too”) and Mark D. Sanders (“I Hope You Dance”, “Blue Clear Sky”). , who had the right to decide on the use of their song. “You never really know – will they say ‘no’ or will they say, ‘Yeah, but we want that many posts,'” observes Frasure. “You are completely at the mercy of the original copyright holder – which you should be.”
With their approval, Swindell recorded “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” at the Sound Stage in Nashville with producer Zach Crowell (Sam Hunt, Dustin Lynch) in a different key than Messina. This separation made sampling unrealistic. Crowell referenced some of the distinctive elements of the original with the arrangement of the new song, but he also avoided getting bogged down in detail.
“I just did it from memory,” he says. “The only thing I remember is the signature, the lyrics of the song and the melody of the song, which they had already done. I didn’t listen to anything, because I thought to myself that whatever went through my mind in 20 years of history would be the most important thing.
Guitarist Sol Philcox-Littlefield recreated Dann Huff’s original guitar intro in the new key. “When Sol hit the first little note, it literally took me back to 1996 when that song came out,” Swindell says.
Scotty Sanders’ steel guitar overdubs are also reminiscent of the original, and Crowell enlisted BBR Music Group artist Madeline Merlo to sing the chorus in the new key. After heavy filtering, her role feels like a throwback to a voice from the past, be it Messina or the karaoke singer.
“I was like, ‘Hey, let’s make you the bar girl singing the song’ — that was my theory,” Crowell says. “She gave me a bunch of stuff, and then I kind of flew it all around the song, put it in little places here and there, and kind of let it go his thing. Looking back, I wish it was a little stronger.
WMN clearly thought the end results were worth the wait. The label released “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” to country radio via PlayMPE on May 24. It jumps to No. 36 in its second week on the June 25 Country Airplay chart and sits at No. 14 in its seventh week on Hot Country Songs after impressive sales and streaming.
Swindell contacted Messina to find ways to promote it together. In the meantime, he appreciates the quick reaction and gets better at singing his set of lyrics – rather than the original – when performing it live.
“I have my vintage Jo Dee Messina shirt that I bought on eBay – I rock it on stage every once in a while,” he says. “So we pay tribute to those who came before us. “