But here’s the thing. McGraw is not really a songwriter. He has always maintained that the songwriters in Nashville — who make a living at this craft — are much better at it than he is. In fact, McGraw has only penned four of the 186 songs he’s released on his 15 studio albums.
And yet, Free Solo inspired him to put pen to paper with Grammy winner Lori McKenna for “Gravity.”
“I think of myself as a singer first and a songwriter second. I don’t consider myself this prolific songwriter. I’ve written a couple, and when this one came along, I was in the middle of a tour,” McGraw says. “My first answer was ’I don’t have time, I don’t have the brainpower right now with everything I’m doing.’ And secondly, I don’t know anything about mountain climbing. I’m afraid of heights. I don’t know if I can relate to this subject matter at all.”
Free Solo is the National Geographic documentary about free soloist climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to climb the face of the 3,000-feet El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope.
McGraw watched an advance copy of the film, he says, and was immediately hooked. “I was enthralled by what he was doing, and how you can believe that much in yourself and you can pursue some thing in life with intent and purpose,” he said. So he sent the movie to McKenna, she fell in love with it, and they emailed back and forth until the song was finished.
McGraw thinks that power of songs, especially country ones, is that they can give listeners all the feels. “What really works is when somebody hears something, when you tell them how they feel because they couldn’t put it into words,” McGraw said, “and maybe they didn’t even know they felt that way until they heard you say it.”
He also admits that the very first time he wrote a song was when he was 14, after watching the royal wedding in 1981. It was, in his words, terrible. “I sat down to write a song about their wedding, about Princess Diana and how beautiful she was. I don’t remember how it goes, I just remember something about ’You look so much like a queen.'”
So that terrible song aside, McGraw says he believes that everything good that’s happened in his life has come from music. “Particularly in my case country music. I met my wife through it, and that was the first turning point in my life: a real understanding of what love is, and what the future could be, and finding out who you are. Discovering the bad sides of yourself and the good sides of yourself. That is such therapy.
“I try to be grateful. It can go away at any moment,” he added. “You can wake up one morning and your magic is gone.”