On Oct. 23, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame will induct Tim Nichols as part of its 2017 class of honorees, alongside Walt Aldridge, Dewayne Blackwell, Jim McBride and the late Vern Gosdin. The Hall of Fame, operated by the Nashville Songwriters Foundation, is dedicated to honoring Nashville’s songwriting legacy through preservation, education and celebration.
Nichols recently spoke to Billboard about his honor, the story behind one of his biggest co-written hits, “Live Like You Were Dying,” which he wrote with Craig Wiseman and went to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 2004 thanks to Tim McGraw — and the country classic that Nichols wishes he had written.
I was out in California in the Armstrong Redwoods State Park. I’m kind of an amateur photographer and I happened to be walking by myself and my phone rang. I saw it was a Nashville number [I didn’t recognize]. Typically, I wouldn’t have answered. But for some reason I did, and it was Pat Alger [chair of the Hall of Fame] telling me that I’d been elected to the Hall of Fame. So it was the coolest moment to find out that way standing in the middle of these 300-foot-tall, 1,000-year-old redwood trees — that was a very neat way to find out.
How did you and Craig Wiseman come up with the idea for “Live Like You Were Dying”?
The day Craig and I wrote “Live Like You Were Dying,” it wasn’t like I came in with that title or he had it. It just came out from conversation. I happened to be re-telling Craig a story that I heard just the day before about a friend of ours that had a health scare. It turned out that everything was fine — some kind of a lab mix-up or whatever. But for a few days he thought that his days were numbered, so-to-speak.
And then that reminded Craig of another story that he had heard — I think it was on NPR — about a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer and she said her thing was she wanted to go mountain climbing in the Rockies and another guy was like, he’d always thought one day he’d like to skydive and so we had skydiving and rocky mountain climbing. Then Craig had an uncle who had been fighting leukemia and had that attitude that he was going to fight it.
So we just started tossing around lines like “dying to live” and Craig spit out “live like you were dying” and I was like, “Dude, I love that! Let’s write that!” And we were off to the races. We got about halfway through it, or a little way more, and my son had football practice. So we knocked off early because I wanted to get to his practice. Craig called me back that night and basically we finished it over the phone.
How did you get the song to Tim McGraw?
We knew that Tim was starting to look for songs for a new project, and Craig had had success with Tim before with “Where The Green Grass Grows.” So Craig did the demo and sent it over to Missi Gallimore [McGraw’s A&R rep]. Her husband, Byron, has produced all of Tim’s records for years. We sent it to Missy, she heard it, loved it, and she took it to Tim and he loved it. He recorded it and it was the title of [his album] and the first single and he debuted it on the ACM awards in ’04. That was a good day, the day that song came down. I’ve said it a lot. It started out like any other day and since then it’s become a day like no other day.
What do you think it is about that song that strikes such a nerve with people?
It really does sum up the concept of living in the moment and not putting things off. Craig and I play lots of songwriter shows here in town and travel around doing these songwriter shows and it seems, without fail, at the end of every show, someone will come up to us and they are just compelled to tell us what that song has meant to them or a family member or a friend. I think it really just speaks and resonates in a way that I think is just universal. As songwriters, that’s our job, and I feel like we did our job pretty well that day.
I think another line — “I gave forgiveness I’d been denying” — resonates a lot with people because for whatever reason we tend to want to carry around that chip or grudge or whatever and that line spoke to that. We heard from a woman that said, “I hadn’t spoken with my father in 15 years, and when I heard that line in your song it hit me. I picked up the phone and called my dad for the first time in 15 years, and we have a relationship now.” That’s pretty strong.
What classic country hit do you wish that you had written and why?
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” [a No. 1 hit for George Jones on Hot Country Songs in 1980]. It’s 100 percent a country music lyrical masterpiece. It’s been cut like a couple hundred times — to me that is the mark of a great song, when you have artists who want to cut it. But there was something to George Jones’ vocal performance. It’s one of those greatest country songs of all time. “He said, I’ll love you ‘til I die,” the first line in the song, and then the chorus “he stopped loving her today” — he didn’t come out and say, “he died today.” But it’s like connecting those dots.
These days now, hurt and pain and heartache, is not quite the thing. But I feel to a large degree those types of songs are what Nashville was built on and that one, again, is at the top of the heap.