With its bristling tempo, its light storyline and its reliance on an existing ’90s country song for large chunks of its words and melody, it seems Cole Swindell would have been in a breezy mood when he co-wrote his latest single, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina.”
Truth be told, he was missing repeated deadlines so he could fit a Thomas Rhett collaboration on the Stereotype album, and had led Warner Music Nashville (WMN) to believe they had already penned the song, which features an interpolation of the 1996 Jo Dee Messina hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” Thus, Swindell was actually stressed when he got in the room at Nashville’s Rhythm House in early 2022 with Rhett and co-writers Ashley Gorley (“Take My Name,” “Play It Again”) and Jesse Frasure (“If I Was a Cowboy,” “Dirt on My Boots”).
“We’re already against the clock — and then also, you’re rewriting a huge, huge hit that we all grew up on,” Swindell says. “It’s just a lot of pressure.”
The song is a direct result of Swindell’s participation in Rhett’s Center Point Road Tour in 2021, where they kicked around the possibility of doing a duet that incorporated a ’90s country song from their youth. Swindell mentioned the idea to his publisher, Sony Publishing/Nashville CEO Rusty Gaston, who noted that Messina’s inaugural hit was one of the most performed karaoke songs from that era in the company’s vast catalog.
Gaston had Swindell at “Heads Carolina.” The publisher also called Frasure, whose affinity for R&B has made him quite familiar with interpolations (songs that incorporate portions of an existing copyright), and asked him to develop a musical framework that drew from “Heads Carolina, Tails California.”
“The thing is, how do you take the chorus of the song and make it into something new and relevant — not only for the genre, but also for that artist?” Frasure says. “Obviously, it’s a male artist, and you’re taking this female classic and trying to do it some justice and not just a hack job. And you want the actual parts of it to be relevant.”
When the writers met up, Frasure’s initial instinct for a duet was to mirror the plot of the 1982 Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney single “The Girl Is Mine,” with Swindell and Rhett playing two friends vying for one woman’s affection. It didn’t quite fly.
“The key to a great country song is like, ‘OK, this has either already happened or I could see this happening…’ just so there’s a realism about it,” Gorley says. “It had all that by the time we got done with it, but we went through a lot of different scenarios to get it there.”
They spent, by one estimate, three or four hours chasing duet storylines, including one in which Rhett served as a wingman in the song for Swindell. But Rhett, whose biography is the source for much of his music, didn’t feel comfortable as a married man singing about cruising for a date, and they eventually decided to write it for a solo male. From there, it soon became apparent they could build the plot around the singer becoming enamored with a girl who covers Messina at a karaoke bar. They drew on Swindell’s history — as well as Rhett’s — by rhyming “tails California” with “a boy from South Georgia,” and the session went quickly from there with the writers bouncing between the chorus and verses as they filled in the narrative.
Where the original celebrates a young couple looking for adventure, the interpolation ends up with the two closing down the bar, then innocently going their separate ways. The song is thus a nostalgic celebration of a lifetime memory, rather than a lifetime partner.
“It could have easily been that song — that ‘Look how we met’ — but I just think that it could be anybody when it takes you back [this way],” Swindell notes. “And then that line is important to me: ‘I still see that girl every time I hear that song.’”
They specifically leaned on the original melody in key moments, but found short detours as well, balancing the original’s familiarity against the need for a new piece that could stand on its own.
“We didn’t stray too far from it, but we have enough new stuff in there to be a new song,” Gorley says. “And also we wanted this to sound like a hit if somebody never heard that, which is another thing you’ve got to think of. You’ve got 13-year-old girls listening to country radio that maybe think, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ and have no idea about the original. I think we kind of accomplished all of that.”
Additionally, they needed the approval of the “Heads Carolina” songwriters, Tim Nichols (“Live Like You Were Dying,” “Girls Lie Too”) and Mark D. Sanders (“I Hope You Dance,” “Blue Clear Sky”), who had the right to decide how their song is used. “You never really know — are they going to say ‘no,’ or are they going to say, ‘Yes, but we want this much of the publishing,’” Frasure observes. “You’re completely at the mercy of the original copyright holder — which you should be.”
With their approval, Swindell recorded “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” at Nashville’s Sound Stage with producer Zach Crowell (Sam Hunt, Dustin Lynch) in a key that was four steps different than Messina’s. That separation made sampling unrealistic. Crowell referenced some of the original’s distinctive elements with the new song’s arrangement, but he also avoided getting bogged down by the details.
“I just did it off memory,” he says. “The only thing I have a memory of is the signature lick, the lyric of the song, and the melody of the song, which they had already done. I didn’t listen to anything, because I figured whatever was in my head from 20 years of history would be the important stuff.”
Guitarist Sol Philcox-Littlefield recreated Dann Huff’s original guitar intro (conceived by now-deceased guitarist J.T. Corenflos in the mid-’90s “Heads Carolina” demo) in the new key.
Scotty Sanders’ steel guitar overdubs harken back to the original, too, and Crowell enlisted BBR Music Group artist Madeline Merlo to sing the chorus in the new key. After heavy filtering, her part resembles a flashback to a voice from the past, whether that’s Messina or the karaoke singer.
“I was like, ‘Hey, let’s make you the girl in the bar singing the song’ — that was my theory,” Crowell says. “She gave me a bunch of stuff, and then I just kind of flew it all around the song, put it in little spots here and there, and just kind of let her do her thing. In hindsight, I wish I had it turned up a little louder.”
WMN clearly thought the end results were worth the wait. The label released “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” to country radio via PlayMPE on May 24. It jumps to No. 36 in its second charted week on the Country Airplay list dated June 25, and occupies No. 14 in its seventh week on Hot Country Songs after impressive early sales and streaming.
Swindell has reached out to Messina about finding ways to promote it together. In the meantime, he’s enjoying the quick reaction and getting better at singing his set of lyrics — rather than the original — when he performs it in concert.
“I’ve got my vintage Jo Dee Messina shirt I got off eBay — I rock that onstage every now and then,” he says. “So we’re paying our respect to the ones who came before us. “