The Writers Round with Tim Nichols

Tim Nichols shares the stories behind the hits he wrote, from Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" to Dustin Lynch's "Cowboys and Angels."

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Tim Nichols
Tim Nichols; Photo courtesy THiS Music

Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Tim Nichols sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying,” Dustin Lynch’s “Cowboys and Angels” and Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California.”

Tim Nichols is the newest member inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The hit songwriter says that the way he initially came to Nashville was not by doors opening, but by doors closing. “That’s how I got here,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville. “Ultimately, there’s no misfortune. It’s all part of the plan. There’s always something you can learn from the journey.”

A sentiment he shared at great length during his Hall of Fame induction speech in October, days before the ceremony he sat down with Sounds Like Nashville at his publishing office, THiS Music, to discuss his decision to pursue a career in songwriting and the ups and downs he faced along the way.

As Nichols settles into a chair in a writing room on Music Row, he gets nostalgic as he recalls the first song he wrote when he was 19. Titled “I Miss You Already,” he says it was a simple, straight-ahead country song. He pauses before noting that the songs he now writes — 30 years later — remain simple, straight-ahead country songs.

The Springfield, Missouri, native was in a band in his late teens and around that time was trying his best to figure out how to write songs. He moved to Music City when he was 21 hoping to be a singer, admitting that at the time he didn’t realize you could make a living writing songs.

“I didn’t know that was an option or a job possibility even,” he shares. “Then I started going to the Bluebird and the industry here really values and respects the craft of songwriting. There’s a strong sense of community among songwriters which I think is the coolest thing ever. It’s more so here than in any other music center.”

For his first few years in Nashville, Nichols was pursuing a career with his band and found himself constantly on the road. By 1983, the last incarnation of the band broke up and he was trying to figure out a way to stay in Nashville. So, he decided to audition for a local theme park, Opryland USA, which had music show productions on a daily basis. He hoped getting the job would keep him in Music City but once again, it didn’t work out exactly like he had planned. While he did get the job, they asked him to relocate and host the show in Branson, Missouri. Fully aware of the opportunity at hand, he spent some time back in his home state before being re-hired the following year for the park in Nashville.

Once he was back in Nashville for the amusement park gig, Nichols would spend his days off writing with various songwriters he met at writers rounds and through networking. One of his first collaborators included Gilles Godard, a Canadian with whom he found much success writing for Canadian acts like Ronnie Prophet and Tommy Hunter.

“The songs were okay,” Nichols says with a laugh, “but because he would come down here and record them with session players they sounded amazing. I would pitch those songs as I was going around getting appointments.”

Along the way, Nichols began playing songs for BMI writer rep Thomas Cain. Seeing something in Nichols, Cain helped introduce the budding songwriter to different publishers and got him an appointment with Leslie Salzillo Schmidt, a song plugger for Milsap-Galbraith Music. During their first meeting Nichols was told to bring his three best songs.

“I had somehow figured out that this was going to be a bit of a process. I didn’t have any illusions that I would walk in and she would freak out over my three songs and offer me a publishing deal,” Nichols explains. “So, I said, ‘I would love to bring you more songs if you’d be open to listen.’ And she said, ‘Of course.’ I had planned on calling her back in a month maybe. The next week she called me back and said, ‘Do you have more songs?'”

One of the five songs he sent her included a waltz called “This Time Last Year,” which he co-wrote with Jon Vezner. Unbeknownst to Nichols, Ronnie Milsap and his producer, Rob Galbraith, were going through songs and stumbled upon it and liked what they heard. Between shows at Opryland USA one hot summer day in 1986, Nichols checked his Code-A-Phone to hear a message from Galbraith.

“Ronnie Milsap’s record producer says, ‘Hey Tim. Me and Ronnie have been listening to a bunch of songs today by a bunch of big deal songwriters and we like this song you and Vezner wrote the best and we think we’re going to cut it,'” Nichols recalls with a smile.

The song would end up on Milsap’s 1987 Heart & Soul album and become Nichols’ first major-label cut. Nichols was then invited to sign with Milsap’s publishing company, Milsap-Galbraith Music.

“I was so fortunate because I was going to have a Ronnie Milsap cut. That cut got me the deal. Not long after that, Keith Whitley recorded a couple songs of mine, Billy Dean got a record deal and he started cutting songs,” he says. “I’ve thankfully been fairly consistent and have managed to have [a song] out that did well every 18 months for the past 30 years. I’m happy with that.”

Nichols credits his longevity to being open to writing with new talent. One of the newcomers he’s written with recently is Drew Baldridge, who he penned his new single “Guns & Roses” with. Another frequent collaborator is Dustin Lynch, who he co-wrote “Cowboys and Angels” with. Lynch, Nichols and Josh Leo collaborated together on Lynch’s first single which helped launch the singer’s career and reached No. 2 on the country charts.

Created in the very room we were chatting in, Nichols recalls writing what would become “Cowboys and Angels” with Lynch. Nichols and Leo had been collaborating for many years together and it was their first session with the country newcomer. At the time, Lynch had a Ford Excursion that he’d hook a trailer up to for the SEC frat parties he’d play each weekend. When he was back in Nashville during the week, Lynch would get together with songwriters to write.

“We did the small talk, the get to know you stuff. We finally got around to, ‘So, you got any ideas?’ And he said he didn’t even though he did have one,” Nichols recalls. “I tossed a couple ideas out and Josh tossed out a couple that Dustin didn’t necessarily go for. At the time, I had this leather bound book that I carried and I would jot ideas in before I started putting them in my phone. Then I said, there was this one thing I’ve been wanting to write and I’ve got this idea called ‘Cowboys and Angels.’ And he said, ‘What? Let me see that!’ I said, ‘It’s right there.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this but that’s the idea I wanted to write today but I was too nervous to say it.’ So Josh said, ‘I guess we know what we’re writing today!'”

The three songwriters would continue their writing partnership by penning several more songs, two of which are featured on Lynch’s sophomore album, Where It’s At, including “She Wants A Cowboy” and “Your Daddy’s Boots.” Nichols and Leo plan to join Lynch on the road later this month to start writing for the singer’s next project.

Another song that launched an artist’s career was Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” which Nichols wrote with Mark D. Sanders. Nichols says the idea came from a book on tape he was listening to at the time. The character in Robert James Waller’s book, Border Music, needed to get out of Texas and was going to decide where he was going by flipping a coin.

“In the book, heads he was going to go to California and tails he was going to go to Mexico. The day I was listening to that section, it was on a Wednesday, and back then Mark and I wrote every Wednesday. We knew with ‘Heads Carolina, Tails Mexico’ we wanted it to be alliteration. California and another C consonant. Kentucky, Kansas. No. Each coast. Carolina, California. that was ’94, ’95. To me it still sounds current.”

Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw produced the song for Messina and Nichols would see his biggest success with 2004’s “Live Like You Were Dying,” a song McGraw recorded and would go on to win every country music award it was nominated for including Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2004 CMA Awards, ACM Awards and a Grammy Award for Best Country Song. Written with Craig Wiseman, Nichols says the song “just happened” when sitting in Wiseman’s office talking to one another.

“I was telling him there was a story I heard the day before about this guy that we knew who had a health scare. They told him, ‘We’re sorry to tell you but your days are numbered.’ That reminded Craig of a story that he heard on NPR about a woman, same thing, and when she had time she wanted to go mountain climbing in the Rockies,” Nichols recalls. “Craig’s uncle was fighting Leukemia and the idea came from the composite of those situations. We were just talking about those kinds of situations and we were trying to figure out, ‘dying to live’ and things like that and Craig spit out ‘live like you were dying.’ I said, ‘I love that. Let’s write that.’ We finished it over the phone that night.”

Nichols said they knew McGraw was starting to look for songs for a new project and he was the first person they went to with the song. While McGraw was dealing with the death of his own father at the time, the song obviously struck him enough that he decided to record it.

“I think what he was going through, that emotion translated in his vocal performance. I feel like that was meant to be his song,” Nichols shares. “When he debuted it on the ACM Awards that year, as a writer you always have a sense of the way you would like your song to be presented, especially the first time. For me, his performance, the production, the whole thing was my idea of perfect. It couldn’t have been better. To me, winning the Grammys is a lot of fun, but I still think seeing him debut the song that night was my sweetest music business moment. Craig and I were on the floor way in the back and his performance reached all the way to the back. The phone started ringing the next day. I had never gotten a response or feedback to a song like that one before. That was a different level.”

While the road to a career as a songwriter certainly isn’t easy, Nichols says in order to make it work you have to love writing because if you don’t, it’s way too hard.

“If you think, ‘If I write a hit song I can make a lot of money,’ that’s true, but again, I think it goes back to if you don’t love it, it’s too hard and it takes too long to get to the money,” he admits. “It’s one thing if it’s something you love, that it’s chosen you as much as you’ve chosen it. Anything related to the arts, it has to choose you as much as you choose it.”

Nichols was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in late October and shares his gratitude for the honor. Having attended the ceremony for years and watching so many of his friends and colleagues be accepted into the songwriting class, he is humbled and in awe that it’s now his turn.

“For years, I always felt so fortunate and grateful because it’s just a great room to be in. It’s great to feel like I belong here. It’s an amazing feeling. After those years of seeing people be inducted into that Hall of Fame and now it’s going to be me, it’s so unbelievable,” he marvels. “I just feel so fortunate that I’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame in the frontend of my career. There’s still so much to go and still so many songs to write.”