Messina warned him that her album was carried out, however he may drop off the demo if he actually wished. Nichols left a cassette tape in her mailbox and moments after Messina hit play, she simply had a sense about “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” the story of a pair that flips a coin to see the place to go as they flee their sleepy small city. Messina performed it for her producers, Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, and so they had the identical response: “Oh man — now we have to chop this.”
Flash ahead round 25 years, and nation star Cole Swindell confronted an analogous predicament. His fourth studio album was due, however he and his collaborators had an concept he was decided to squeeze onto the document — an interpolation of Messina’s music, which had develop into a ’90s nation basic. Swindell instructed his document label that the music was virtually written — in actuality, he had not but began — and so they gave him some leeway.
The monitor was well worth the wait: Swindell’s “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” a couple of man falling for a woman who performs Messina’s hit at a karaoke bar, is without doubt one of the greatest nation songs of the 12 months, touchdown at No. 7 on Billboard’s year-end nation chart. It’s additionally the second-longest-running No. 1 music on nation radio in 2022 — the uncommon monitor to prime the charts for 5 weeks — and is licensed platinum, incomes greater than 300 million international streams.
The complete-circle nature of all of it stays magical and a bit mystifying to each Swindell, 39, and Messina, 52, who’ve fashioned an sudden bond this 12 months. The music’s huge success launched Swindell to a brand new echelon of fame in his 10-year Nashville profession and despatched Messina, a beloved nation star who had a string of hits within the Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s, again into the highlight. Right here’s the story of the way it all got here collectively.
Robert James Waller’s novel “Border Music,” printed just a few years after his megahit “The Bridges of Madison County,” didn’t go away a lot impression past some harsh critiques, nevertheless it did present Nichols the inspiration for Messina’s breakout hit.
“The principle character’s identify was Texas Jack Carmine,” he mentioned. “The identify alone ought to have tipped me off that e-book wasn’t going to be nice.”
Struggling by way of the “dangerous audiobook,” Nichols listened as Texas Jack, who wanted to get out of city, flipped a coin to resolve whether or not he ought to go to California or Mexico. That idea caught in Nichols’s head as he arrived at his weekly writing session with Sanders.
“I used to be making an attempt to channel Bruce Springsteen and Jack Kerouac,” Sanders mentioned. “And I used to be excited about my spouse’s hometown of Brewton, Alabama, which has a giant paper mill.”
Thus, the opening strains had been born: “We must always have identified it the day they shut that paper mill down / There’d be no future for us, no extra in our little city / I’ve acquired individuals in Austin, ain’t your daddy nonetheless in Des Moines? / We will pack up tomorrow, tonight let’s flip a coin / Heads Carolina, tails California, someplace greener, someplace hotter …”
As followers of the unique know, these aren’t the lyrics that Messina recorded. As a Massachusetts native, she was unfamiliar with paper mills, however she nervous about offending Nichols and Sanders by asking if they might change the phrases. Undeterred, they swiftly wrote a brand new opening, even swapping Austin for Boston to signify her residence state: “Child, what do you say we simply get misplaced? Depart this one-horse city like two rebels with no trigger / I’ve acquired individuals in Boston, ain’t your daddy nonetheless in De Moines?”
“It simply will get your adrenaline going, you recognize?” Messina mentioned. “It was, ‘It’s me and also you towards the world.’”
Her label launched it as the primary single off her self-titled debut album in January 1996 and the up-tempo monitor flew up the charts. Although everybody assumes it went straight to No. 1, it truly acquired caught at No. 2 for a number of weeks behind Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria.” (“Maria acquired in my approach!” Messina mentioned, laughing, although she has no exhausting emotions, particularly as a result of Brooks & Dunn took her on tour.)
Nichols mentioned when he first heard Messina performing “Heads Carolina,” he was reminded of Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy” and Religion Hill’s “Wild One,” two smashes that helped launch them to stardom. “No matter magic these two songs had, I believed ‘Heads Carolina’ had the identical factor,” he mentioned.
Swindell launched his Nashville profession with “Chillin’ It” in 2013 — it went No. 1 and he’s had a slew of hits ever since. However a decade into his profession, he wished to take an opportunity on one thing completely different. Throughout a dialog final 12 months along with his writer Rusty Gaston, chief government of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville, they began speaking about Swindell placing his personal spin on a ’90s nation hit. (Nation music is in the midst of a surge of ’90s nostalgia.) One basic that occurred to be within the Sony catalogue was “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” which Gaston talked about was extraordinarily fashionable at karaoke.
Though Swindell cherished the concept, he was nervous, particularly paying homage to a music and artist that he “grew up on after I was falling in love with nation music.” However as soon as he acquired permission from the unique songwriters, he gathered a bunch of trusted collaborators for the writing course of.
Initially, the plan was for the music to be a duet with nation star Thomas Rhett, Swindell’s longtime buddy and tour-mate. “There’s one thing anthemic about that music that has resonated for the world,” mentioned Rhett, who, like Swindell, initially hails from Southern Georgia. “The primary line that got here to my head was ‘Perhaps she’d fall for a boy from South Georgia; heads Carolina, tails California.’”
The singers acquired along with Nashville songwriter/producers/hitmakers Ashley Gorley and Jesse Frasure. “Each Jesse and I grew up on plenty of hip-hop and R&B music, the place they sampled plenty of stuff,” Gorley mentioned, noting that sampling and interpolations are nonetheless uncommon in nation music. He instantly latched on to the “Heads Carolina” idea, although he mentioned all of them felt the strain of adapting such a well-known music and switching from the feminine to male perspective.
“We had been all obsessive about the concept of doing it and all of us wished to essentially cautious: ‘We will’t make this tacky, we are able to’t do that mistaken, now we have to honor the unique,’” Gorley mentioned.
At first, Fraser mentioned, the group thought of a duet much like the 1982 Paul McCartney-Michael Jackson music “The Woman is Mine,” the place Swindell and Rhett compete for the affections of the lady singing “Heads Carolina” — perhaps they might use the coin flip to see who “received” the possibility to speak to her. However as they toyed with the concept, they puzzled if it could work higher as a Swindell solo effort.
“As soon as we form of mentioned, ‘Let’s cease making an attempt to make this a TR and Cole duet’ and tapped into this karaoke second, it did open up this concept,” Frasure mentioned. They solidified the lyrics, through which the narrator and “Heads Carolina” karaoke-singing lady bond over their love of ’90s nation: “She’s a ’90s nation fan, like I’m / Hey, I acquired a Chevy, she will be able to flip 1 / 4, I’d drive her wherever from right here to California / When this music is over, I gotta discover her, trigger she had me at ‘Heads Carolina’ …”
When the demo began making the rounds, it immediately struck a chord with songwriter-producer Zach Crowell, who lobbied Cris Lacy, co-president at Swindell’s label Warner Music Nashville, to supply the music.
“After I heard it, I used to be, first off, immediately jealous as a songwriter I wasn’t a part of writing that music,” mentioned Crowell, who introduced in singer-songwriter Madeline Merlo to sing backup vocals. “I hardly ever have that feeling — however after I heard it, I actually simply wished to be a part of it.”
‘You knew from the get-go’
In the course of the writing course of, Rhett remembers considering, “Dang, this sort of looks like a smash.” Swindell recollects Crowell saying, “That is going to be completely huge.” Swindell nonetheless wasn’t certain.
“I respect Jo Dee and ’90s nation and the songwriters a lot,” he mentioned. “I simply didn’t know the way everybody was going to take it.”
They took it very properly: The impossibly catchy hook mixed with the familiarity of the unique immediately related with listeners. Swindell held an album launch get together in April, and though “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” was barely 24 hours previous, followers misplaced their minds.
“These individuals within the viewers had been simply screaming it, partly as a result of they’ve heard it earlier than,” Frasure mentioned. “That’s the great thing about an interpolation when it’s carried out proper.”
The music was launched as a single in June and 12 weeks later it topped the radio chart, the fastest-rising single of Swindell’s profession. “Folks are actually coming to exhibits actually to listen to that one music,” he mentioned.
“From day one, you couldn’t not see it throughout TikTok, Instagram, YouTube,” Rhett mentioned. “You knew from the get-go that this was going to be a giant hit. However I don’t assume any of us knew it was going to be a five-week No. 1 music.”
Jo Dee Messina takes middle stage
Years later, audiences nonetheless go wild when Messina performs “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” and she or he hears numerous tales of how the music impressed individuals to flip a coin and resolve the place to maneuver. However she was nonetheless shocked final 12 months when she acquired a textual content from Nichols saying, “Hey, I simply wished to offer you a heads up that this music was recorded,” together with a duplicate of Swindell’s model.
“At first I used to be form of like, ‘Okay!’ and brought aback a bit,” she mentioned. “Then I listened to it and I used to be like, ‘Okay, what a fantastic tackle the music’ … I imply, what an exquisite factor to have that music thought of to be a karaoke staple.”
Then she heard from Swindell and his label that he was wanting to do one other remixed model of “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” that he would sing together with her.
“It was at all times the plan — the followers had been shedding it, saying, ‘You gotta put out a model with Jo Dee!’” Swindell mentioned. “I wished to say, ‘Simply be affected person.’” He emphasizes repeatedly that none of this might have been potential with out Messina, and he was thrilled to movie the music video together with her taking part in the bartender. (Nichols, and a photograph of Sanders, make cameos as properly.)
The 2 met up within the studio just a few weeks earlier than the Nation Music Affiliation Awards in November and labored with Crowell, adjusting the important thing so it could work in each vocal ranges. The music was launched proper earlier than the CMAs, and the day of the present, Messina purposely didn’t stroll the purple carpet in order that viewers could be shocked throughout Swindell’s efficiency when she strolled out to sing the music with him.
Certain sufficient, her look drew one of many greatest roars of the night time — Swindell decked out in fringe, Messina in leopard print — as the 2 sported enormous grins and Messina flawlessly belted out the refrain, with 1000’s singing alongside.
“Mark D. Sanders was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I noticed you on the CMAs, you probably did such a fantastic job,’” Messina mentioned. “I mentioned, ‘Effectively, that goes to indicate you’ve got written a music that has supplied a lifetime of happiness.’”
A life-changing hit — once more
Messina has stored writing songs and touring — all of this ’90s nation nostalgia has resulted in sold-out exhibits — however she’s acquired an sudden degree of consideration this 12 months.
“It’s modified my entire trajectory for 2023,” she mentioned, including that she’s develop into extra lively on social media, the place she’s been flooded with messages asking what she’s to this point. “Now now we have new music that’s popping out … it actually has modified what the longer term seems like.”
The songwriters had been equally bowled over by the success — even for constant hitmakers like Rhett, Gorley, Frasure and Crowell, a five-week No. 1 is pretty unprecedented — and Swindell is grateful to everybody who was concerned. He’s properly conscious these conditions don’t occur typically: After you’re previous the “new artist” section in Nashville, it’s a must to work and alter issues as much as sustain the momentum, although he by no means anticipated this.
“It’s loopy what a music can do,” Swindell mentioned. “I’ve identified that, however I by no means thought one after 10 years may take me to a very completely different degree. I’ve been saying it’s among the best years of my life, and plenty of that’s due to what this music has carried out for me and my entire crew.”