Country star Jo Dee Messina had just finished recording her debut album in the summer of 1995 when she got a phone call from songwriter Tim Nichols. “We just wrote this song,” he told her about a recent session with his fellow songwriter Mark D. Sanders, “and we would love to play it for your record.”
Messina warned him that her album was done, but he could drop off the demo if he really wanted. Nichols left a cassette tape in her mailbox and moments after Messina hit play, she just had a feeling about “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” the story of a couple that flips a coin to see where to go as they flee their sleepy small town. Messina played it for her producers, Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, and they had the same reaction: “Oh man — we have to cut this.”
Flash forward around 25 years, and country star Cole Swindell faced a similar predicament. His fourth studio album was due, but he and his collaborators had an idea he was determined to squeeze onto the record — an interpolation of Messina’s song, which had become a ’90s country classic. Swindell told his record label that the song was practically written — in reality, he had not yet started — and they gave him some leeway.
The track was worth the wait: Swindell’s “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” about a guy falling for a girl who performs Messina’s hit at a karaoke bar, is one of the biggest country songs of the year, landing at No. 7 on Billboard’s year-end country chart. It’s also the second-longest-running No. 1 song on country radio in 2022 — the rare track to top the charts for five weeks — and is certified platinum, earning more than 300 million global streams.
The full-circle nature of it all remains magical and a bit mystifying to both Swindell, 39, and Messina, 52, who have formed an unexpected bond this year. The song’s enormous success launched Swindell to a new echelon of fame in his 10-year Nashville career and sent Messina, a beloved country star who had a string of hits in the 1990s and early 2000s, back into the spotlight. Here’s the story of how it all came together.
A magical country music moment
Robert James Waller’s novel “Border Music,” published a few years after his megahit “The Bridges of Madison County,” didn’t leave much impact beyond some harsh reviews, but it did provide Nichols the inspiration for Messina’s breakout hit.
“The main character’s name was Texas Jack Carmine,” he said. “The name alone should have tipped me off that book wasn’t going to be great.”
Suffering through the “bad audiobook,” Nichols listened as Texas Jack, who needed to get out of town, flipped a coin to decide whether he should go to California or Mexico. That concept stuck in Nichols’s head as he arrived at his weekly writing session with Sanders.
“I was trying to channel Bruce Springsteen and Jack Kerouac,” Sanders said. “And I was thinking about my wife’s hometown of Brewton, Alabama, which has a big paper mill.”
Thus, the opening lines were born: “We should have known it the day they shut that paper mill down / There’d be no future for us, no more in our little town / I’ve got people in Austin, ain’t your daddy still in Des Moines? / We can pack up tomorrow, tonight let’s flip a coin / Heads Carolina, tails California, somewhere greener, somewhere warmer …”
As fans of the original know, those are not the lyrics that Messina recorded. As a Massachusetts native, she was unfamiliar with paper mills, but she worried about offending Nichols and Sanders by asking if they could change the words. Undeterred, they swiftly wrote a new opening, even swapping Austin for Boston to represent her home state: “Baby, what do you say we just get lost? Leave this one-horse town like two rebels without a cause / I’ve got people in Boston, ain’t your daddy still in De Moines?”
“It just gets your adrenaline going, you know?” Messina said. “It was, ‘It’s me and you against the world.’”
Her label released it as the first single off her self-titled debut album in January 1996 and the up-tempo track flew up the charts. Though everyone assumes it went straight to No. 1, it actually got stuck at No. 2 for several weeks behind Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria.” (“Maria got in my way!” Messina said, laughing, though she has no hard feelings, especially because Brooks & Dunn took her on tour.)
Nichols said when he first heard Messina performing “Heads Carolina,” he was reminded of Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy” and Faith Hill’s “Wild One,” two smashes that helped launch them to stardom. “Whatever magic those two songs had, I thought ‘Heads Carolina’ had the same thing,” he said.
A new take on a classic
Swindell launched his Nashville career with “Chillin’ It” in 2013 — it went No. 1 and he’s had a slew of hits ever since. But a decade into his career, he wanted to take a chance on something different. During a conversation last year with his publisher Rusty Gaston, chief executive of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville, they started talking about Swindell putting his own spin on a ’90s country hit. (Country music is in the middle of a surge of ’90s nostalgia.) One classic that happened to be in the Sony catalogue was “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” which Gaston mentioned was extremely popular at karaoke.
Although Swindell loved the idea, he was nervous, especially paying homage to a song and artist that he “grew up on when I was falling in love with country music.” But once he got permission from the original songwriters, he gathered a group of trusted collaborators for the writing process.
Originally, the plan was for the song to be a duet with country star Thomas Rhett, Swindell’s longtime friend and tour-mate. “There’s something anthemic about that song that has resonated for the world,” said Rhett, who, like Swindell, originally hails from Southern Georgia. “The first line that came to my head was ‘Maybe she’d fall for a boy from South Georgia; heads Carolina, tails California.’”
The singers got together with Nashville songwriter/producers/hitmakers Ashley Gorley and Jesse Frasure. “Both Jesse and I grew up on a lot of hip-hop and R&B music, where they sampled a lot of stuff,” Gorley said, noting that sampling and interpolations are still unusual in country music. He immediately latched on to the “Heads Carolina” concept, though he said they all felt the pressure of adapting such a famous song and switching from the female to male perspective.
“We were all obsessed with the idea of doing it and we all wanted to really careful: ‘We can’t make this cheesy, we can’t do this wrong, we have to honor the original,’” Gorley said.
At first, Fraser said, the group considered a duet similar to the 1982 Paul McCartney-Michael Jackson song “The Girl is Mine,” where Swindell and Rhett compete for the affections of the girl singing “Heads Carolina” — maybe they could use the coin flip to see who “won” the chance to talk to her. But as they toyed with the idea, they wondered if it would work better as a Swindell solo effort.
“Once we kind of said, ‘Let’s stop trying to make this a TR and Cole duet’ and tapped into this karaoke moment, it did open up this idea,” Frasure said. They solidified the lyrics, in which the narrator and “Heads Carolina” karaoke-singing woman bond over their love of ’90s country: “She’s a ’90s country fan, like I am / Hey, I got a Chevy, she can flip a quarter, I’d drive her anywhere from here to California / When this song is over, I gotta find her, cause she had me at ‘Heads Carolina’ …”
When the demo started making the rounds, it instantly struck a chord with songwriter-producer Zach Crowell, who lobbied Cris Lacy, co-president at Swindell’s label Warner Music Nashville, to produce the song.
“When I heard it, I was, first off, instantly jealous as a songwriter I wasn’t part of writing that song,” said Crowell, who brought in singer-songwriter Madeline Merlo to sing backup vocals. “I rarely have that feeling — but when I heard it, I literally just wanted to be part of it.”
‘You knew from the get-go’
During the writing process, Rhett remembers thinking, “Dang, this kind of feels like a smash.” Swindell recalls Crowell saying, “This is going to be absolutely massive.” Swindell still wasn’t sure.
“I respect Jo Dee and ’90s country and the songwriters so much,” he said. “I just didn’t know how everyone was going to take it.”
They took it very well: The impossibly catchy hook combined with the familiarity of the original instantly connected with listeners. Swindell held an album launch party in April, and even though “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” was barely 24 hours old, fans lost their minds.
“These people in the audience were just screaming it, partly because they’ve heard it before,” Frasure said. “That’s the beauty of an interpolation when it’s done right.”
The song was released as a single in June and 12 weeks later it topped the radio chart, the fastest-rising single of Swindell’s career. “People are now coming to shows literally to hear that one song,” he said.
“From day one, you couldn’t not see it across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube,” Rhett said. “You knew from the get-go that this was going to be a big hit. But I don’t think any of us knew it was going to be a five-week No. 1 song.”
Jo Dee Messina takes center stage
Years later, audiences still go wild when Messina performs “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” and she hears countless stories of how the song inspired people to flip a coin and decide where to move. But she was still shocked last year when she got a text from Nichols saying, “Hey, I just wanted to give you a heads up that this song was recorded,” along with a copy of Swindell’s version.
“At first I was kind of like, ‘Okay!’ and taken aback a bit,” she said. “Then I listened to it and I was like, ‘Okay, what a great take on the song’ … I mean, what a wonderful thing to have that song considered to be a karaoke staple.”
Then she heard from Swindell and his label that he was eager to do another remixed version of “She Had Me At Heads Carolina” that he would sing with her.
“It was always the plan — the fans were losing it, saying, ‘You gotta put out a version with Jo Dee!’” Swindell said. “I wanted to say, ‘Just be patient.’” He emphasizes repeatedly that none of this could have been possible without Messina, and he was thrilled to film the music video with her playing the bartender. (Nichols, and a photo of Sanders, make cameos as well.)
The two met up in the studio a few weeks before the Country Music Association Awards in November and worked with Crowell, adjusting the key so it would work in both vocal ranges. The song was released right before the CMAs, and the day of the show, Messina purposely didn’t walk the red carpet so that viewers would be surprised during Swindell’s performance when she strolled out to sing the song with him.
Sure enough, her appearance drew one of the biggest roars of the night — Swindell decked out in fringe, Messina in leopard print — as the two sported huge grins and Messina flawlessly belted out the chorus, with thousands singing along.
“Mark D. Sanders was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I saw you on the CMAs, you did such a great job,’” Messina said. “I said, ‘Well, that goes to show you have written a song that has provided a lifetime of happiness.’”
A life-changing hit — again
Messina has kept writing songs and touring — all of this ’90s country nostalgia has resulted in sold-out shows — but she’s received an unexpected level of attention this year.
“It’s changed my whole trajectory for 2023,” she said, adding that she’s become more active on social media, where she’s been flooded with messages asking what she’s up to now. “Now we have new music that’s coming out … it really has changed what the future looks like.”
The songwriters were similarly taken aback by the success — even for consistent hitmakers like Rhett, Gorley, Frasure and Crowell, a five-week No. 1 is fairly unprecedented — and Swindell is grateful to everyone who was involved. He’s well aware these situations don’t happen often: After you’re past the “new artist” phase in Nashville, you have to work and change things up to keep up the momentum, though he never expected this.
“It’s crazy what a song can do,” Swindell said. “I’ve known that, but I never thought one after 10 years could take me to a completely different level. I’ve been saying it’s one of the best years of my life, and a lot of that is because of what this song has done for me and my whole team.”