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Taylor Swift: Tim McGraw turns 10

‘Early on, she was breaking the rules,’ Nathan Chapman tells EW

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It’s difficult to remember a time when Taylor Swift didn’t dominate the pop charts.

Her self-titled debut album peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, and ever since her second album, Fearless, her releases are basically guaranteed to hold down any number of No. 1 spots. But one song on Taylor Swift kick-started the then-16-year-old’s career: her first-ever single, “Tim McGraw,” which turns 10 on Sunday. The soft, heartbreaking track is about the end of a relationship, although feelings still linger. She penned it during her freshman year of high school — along with songwriter Liz Rose — about a former boyfriend going off to college.

The Swift-Rose pairing led Swift to work with Nathan Chapman. At the time, the country producer was working on demos for various Nashville, Tennessee artists. Swift’s talent immediately struck him. “She was a next-level songwriter,” he tells EW. “Being around a bunch of different songwriters, you can immediately tell when someone has something special as a writer, and that was immediately evident.”

The magic happened in a very unglamorous location, in a tiny studio behind the Jody Williams Music publishing company by Music Row. The publisher converted a one-car garage into a recording room, which was endearingly referred to as “The Shack.” It was directly behind the publishing house where the Swift and Rose penned “Tim McGraw.” “They literally walked down the stairs, out the backdoor, crossed the little sidewalk, and into ‘The Shack,’ and gave me the brand new song they had just written,” Chapman remembers. “I was in the right shack at the right time, I guess [laughs].”

Chapman described the first time he heard the song as “surreal,” not only because the title name-checked an incredibly popular artist. “It was such a different way of talking about love between two people,” Chapman says. “That’s just an indication early on of her genius as a songwriter. Early on, she was breaking the rules.”

Chapman took the work tape — a very rough version of a song — and put together a demo with other instruments and an idea on how to arrange them. He sought to re-create the emotion that swept him away the first time he heard it. Chapman’s main goal was to highlight the basics. “My hope was the first listen, you walk away, you felt like you heard Taylor and her acoustic,” he says.

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They worked tirelessly to put out the track: Swift, Chapman, Rose, Swift’s mother Andrea, and Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta all stuffed envelopes with “Tim McGraw” singles and sent them to radio stations. (Chapman even recalls that when he recorded his vocal harmony, Andrea fell asleep in the middle of the late-night recording session.) The tune landed at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at No. 6 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs — a solid debut for Swift. It took two more tries to hit No. 1 on the country chart (“Our Song”) five more to break the top 10 of the Hot 100 (“Change”).

“It’s so right for her as an artist to have taken this journey she’s been on,” Chapman says. “That’s what a good artist does: They do something to catch you just a little bit off-guard, but the execution of their idea is so perfect, that it’s undeniable.”

Swift and Chapman caught up in November over dinner in Los Angeles — far from the days of The Shack. “Whether she’s making pop music or she comes back and makes a country record and we work together on that album it doesn’t matter,” Chapman asserts. “We’ll always be fast friends with them.”