Tim McGraw on Writing 'Gravity' For Nat Geo Doc 'Free Solo': 'Right Off the Bat, I Was Hooked'

Tim McGraw
David Needleman

Tim McGraw

At first glance, Tim McGraw would not seem the obvious choice to co-write and sing a song for Free Solo, National Geographic’s thrilling documentary about Alex Honnold, who mountain climbs without the assistance of any ropes.

It didn’t even make sense to McGraw. “I don’t know anything about mountain climbing,” he says. “It doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t understand it. I couldn’t do it to save my kids’ lives. I’m afraid of heights. It’s funny because I’m a pilot, but doing something like that scares me to death.”

Then he watched the film, in select theaters now, about Honnold’s attempt to become the first free solo climber to summit Yosemite’s 3,200-foot El Capitan. “And right off the bat, I was hooked. I fell in love with Alex’s passion, and his commitment, and his intensity about what he did. But also his calmness,” McGraw says. “As we were watching the movie, I had a little notebook and I started writing down phrases and ideas and things that struck me. I was emotionally invested in the movie right away.”

That’s how the song “Gravity” was born. The uplifting, emotional tune about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles plays over the end-title credits and marks McGraw’s third song he’s written for a film, following “My Little Girl” from Flicka andKeep Your Eyes on Me” from The Shack, and his first song for a documentary. 

McGraw immediately enlisted songsmith Lori McKenna, who wrote his massive 2016 hit “Humble and Kind,” as his co-writer. “My first thought, of course, was, 'I gotta get Lori McKenna to turn it into something great.'” McKenna watched the film and  felt the same excitement for it as McGraw. “She sent all of her ideas, and it was amazing that my notebook and her [thoughts] almost verbatim had some of the same ideas, some of the same phrases, some of the same big-picture cinematic views of what this song is about. It took not much more than a week to write the song.”

In addition to the concept of gravity, the lyrics focus on head, heart and hands -- and Honnold’s connection to all three when he climbs. 

“I think he probably felt more connected to the world and more connected to life and more connected to himself when he was connected to that rock and that had everything to do with his heart and his head,” McGraw says. “His hands connected him to [the rock], connected him in a metaphorical way to everything in his life and his head had to be in it at the same time, so all of those things had to be really connected in order for him to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. If you take that out further in all parts of life and all parts of humanity, I think that that's true for everything that we do. It’s the connection.”

McGraw, who was in the middle of his tour with wife Faith Hill and making a new album, turned in the demo to his agent. He had already politely said if it wasn’t right for the film, he and McKenna were fine with that, but neither one had the time to continue work on it. “ I said I don’t want anybody to feel beholden to us [and] feel like you can’t come back and tell us, ‘We don’t like this.’ And secondly, we’re going to be quick about this because we’re not going to have a lot of time to keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. So once we do this, and you hear what we’re going to do, if you don’t like it, then please move on to somebody else. I just don’t have time to keep going back and forth, so if you don’t like it, we get it. We’re big boys. We want to serve the film, we’re not trying to serve ourselves here.”

Luckily, filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi loved the song, so McGraw and longtime producer Byron Gallimore went into the studio with the intent of making the song’s tone match the grandeur of El Capitan. “We wanted to [recall] the vistas that are in the movie, and the power that’s in the movie and the exhilaration that’s in the movie,” McGraw says. To accomplish that, they brought in David Campbell to arrange the sweeping orchestral parts that swell during the last half of the song. 

“It’s inspiring to sing,” McGraw says. “It’s a different sort of sound for me in a lot of ways and it’s a different sort of melody for me. We wanted to make this big, expansive, beautiful track, but we also wanted to be intimate in a lot of places. We wanted you to hear the song, see the film, and go, ‘Oh, that makes complete sense!’ But, we also wanted you to be able to hear the song and not know the film and, hopefully, it inspires you in some way.”

The film left McGraw eager to meet Honnold, who stares down his demons throughout the movie but seems most at peace when he’s clinging to the side of a mountain, despite one misplaced step could kill him.  “What kind of discipline and thought process does it take to put yourself in a position where you can't make a mistake. And what kind of intent and purpose does it take to be able to accomplish that, and does he truly go into a meditative mode when he [climbs]? Does the voice in his head that everybody has and the darkness that rises up in everybody, can you really block that, and if you can, why do you need to climb a mountain to do that?,” McGraw asks with a laugh.

McGraw, who has released two songs from his forthcoming 2019 album, is unsure whether “Gravity” will be on his new effort.  “For me, it lives in this movie right now. It certainly will show up  somewhere down the line, whether it be some sort of  compilation or something, but I don't know,” he says. “ I do think the song  stands on it's own if you hear it and not see the movie, but I like it living there for the moment."