Tim McGraw & Jon Meacham on Writing 'Songs of America' and What We Can Learn From Our Musical Past

Danny Clinch
Tim McGraw and Jon Meacham

The musical superstar & Pulitzer Prize-winning author dive deep into America's tunes.

Toward the end of last year, Tim McGraw read The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, penned by his Nashville neighbor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jon Meacham.

The book, which examined critical turning points in our nation’s history and how we have prevailed, led the Grammy-winning singer to ask Meacham if he’d ever thought about the role music played in these struggles.

“And honestly, I hadn’t,” says Meacham, sitting with McGraw at a Nashville recording studio. “What was cool about [McGraw’s question] was it was a different window to open than my usual political stuff. … Having music as the gateway opens us up to not just a whole different audience, but a different emotional level for people.” 

The result of their conversation is Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation, out Tuesday (June 11) through Random House.

“This so organically happened,” McGraw says, after the pair shared seven years of dinner parties and “smoking cigars, talking about history and current events.” For McGraw, who says hearing Jessi Colter’s “I’m Not Lisa” “instantly puts me in a hammock on the bayou in my backyard with an algebra book on my chest in seventh grade,” the question was “if on a small scale individually in your own life music has that sort of impact, what sort of impact could it have on the mass consciousness of a people in inflection moments in the arc of our history? That's what led me to ask Jon.”

The book’s eight chapters each speak to an American era -- such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the civil rights movement -- and tie in songs that represent that period, from “The Liberty Song,” (a little known pre-Revolutionary War song written in 1768 by founding father John Dickinson) to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,”  “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin' in the Wind,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” The tunes, often in support or protest of a movement, give shape to the way that music tells the history of America as much as wars, economic instability and social agitation do.

McGraw passionately addresses specific songs via breakout boxes interspersed throughout Meacham’s essays.

“Pretty early on, we hit on the division-of-labor idea,” Meacham says. “It occurred to us that people expect narrative from me, but they want to hear from Tim. So instead of trying to write it together, the sidebar idea came up so you can get a historian's perspective in the running text and a performer’s perspective.”

The book got off to a galloping -- and, for McGraw, a surprising -- start when Meacham, who was so inspired by the topic, wrote the first two chapters over Christmas break while in Jamaica.

Very quickly, familiar patterns established themselves. “Even in the music, you can see the tensions and the dichotomy: ‘Dixie’ versus ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ versus ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime’ or “Ballad of the Green Berets’ versus ‘Fortunate Son,’” Meacham says. “We’ve always sung songs that were on different sides of things. One thing that emerged is music has more of a unifying capacity than prose and rhetoric.” 

McGraw wrote about the songs that inspired and moved him. Many of the tunes he knew; others, especially from the 1700s and 1800s, he researched as he picked which ones to dive into. “When I first started writing the sidebars, the first text I got back from Jon was ‘Look, Tim, don’t try to be a history writer,'” he laughs.

“That’s just the nature of collaboration,” Meacham says, gently. “You’ve got to have a lane.”

The remarkable speed with which the project came together didn’t allow time for an audio accompaniment. However, the pair are touting it through a six-city theater tour that kicked off Monday in New York and runs through June 24 in Raleigh, N.C.  They discuss the chapters and then McGraw performs songs discussed in the text. They have also added in some of McGraw’s tunes that address themes in the book. “‘If You’re Reading This’ is the showstopper,” Meacham says.

Though McGraw performs some of his songs, they were intentionally left out of the book. “I wanted it to be more voyeuristic in my approach to looking at this,” he says. “I wanted it to come from being a musician point of view, but not from a successful artist point of view. I wanted to [show how] this music impacted me as a musician and as a history buff.”

The book name-checks many issue-oriented songs performed by country artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Loretta Lynn’s “Dear Uncle Sam,” Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and Glen Campbell’s “Galveston.” That country artists have, for the most part,  since abdicated the role of social commentator is not lost on McGraw. “It's kind of like the third rail for musicians now to speak to politics or to sing about politics. It didn't use to be,” he says. “I think social media has a lot to do with that because everybody is on board instantly with what you do and in their opinions. I think that can keep people at bay. For me, this book is a good way to talk about that without stepping on that rail [and] a way to look back at these moments in history and see what these artists were doing.”

He adds it is also a reminder to current acts of the pivotal role these songs and artists played in shaping the public debate: “Look how they mattered. Look how they made a difference,” he says. “Maybe we should think about that a little bit more.” 

The book stops in the mid-2000s -- after the Dixie Chicks’ 2003 criticism of George W. Bush, but well before Donald Trump becomes president. The omission was intentional, Meacham says, simply because more time has to pass before it’s possible to provide any meaningful perspective.

The pair vows that Songs of America is a starting point, not a conclusion. “This is not going to be your typical book thing that's over in a week,” Meacham says. “We're hoping to keep doing these shows, keep adding to [the project], because the argument is important and if we're right that music is unifying and not dividing, we're going to need a lot more of this.”