Tim Nichols on Songs with Magic Dust

Stories Behind Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina Hits

Before hit songwriter Tim Nichols had his songwriting deal, he was working at the Opryland resort, in a costume and trying to clog. He was also working construction. And he was also trying to figure Nashville out. Then Jo Dee Messina came along.

“I heard she was looking for a duet for her and Tim (McGraw),” Nichols told Country Aircheck. “Mark Sanders and I had written ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California’ and I thought it would be perfect for them. I’m not one to hype songs, but I really believed that was the song.”

Since Nichols lived so close to Messina in Mt. Juliet, he decided to put a demo of the song in her mailbox. And just one month later, she’d cut the song and told Nichols she was making it her debut single in 1996.

“She said, ‘We cut it, but it’s not a duet. Are you mad?’ I said, ‘No, of course not!’ I’ll never forget when she played it for me. We were sitting in her car in her driveway,” he recalled, “and I remember thinking there was magic song dust on it. I heard it on the radio yesterday, and it still holds up.”

Behind “Live Like You Were Dying,” Nichols said, that’s the most-performed song in his catalog. Even newcomer Brandon Lay has resurrected the song for one of his first videos.

Heads Carolina, Tails California by Brandon Lay on VEVO.

Because he’s been at it for so long, Nichols knows there will always be days when there is no magic song dust. “On the days you feel like, ‘Man, what I would give for one original thought,’ you have to show up, even though you might not have anything inspiring that morning. There’s still no substitute for being ready and in position for the muse, day in and day out,” he said. Which is kind of what happened the day he and Craig Wiseman wrote “Live Like You Were Dying.”

“We didn’t have a clue we were going to write that song that day. We were making small talk. I was telling him a story about a friend of ours who’d had a health scare and he thought his days were numbered.

Tim Nichols, Craig Wiseman and Tim McGraw during 40th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards - Show at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. (Photo by M. Caulfield/WireImage) M. Caulfield/WireImage

“That reminded Craig of a story he’d heard on NPR. So the biggest song of our careers happened because we showed up,” he said.

That 2004 ballad went on to win the CMA Awards for single and song of the year, the ACM Award for song of the year and the Grammy Award for best country song.

Steve Grayson/WireImage for The Recording Academy
Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.