By Annie Reuter and Kurt Wolff
“We didn’t mean for it to become a duet,” Jimmy Robbins told Radio.com about “We Were Us,” the song of his that Keith Urban recorded last year with Miranda Lambert. “That didn’t happen until we got to the second verse, and thought, ‘maybe a guy could say this, too.’ That’s when we all got pretty excited about it.”
Robbins wrote “We Were Us” with two of his regular writing partners, Jon Nite and Nicolle Galyon, and last November the song became Urban’s 16th No. 1 hit. Now it’s also been nominated for Vocal Event of the Year at the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, which take place April 6 in Las Vegas. (Update: “We Were Us” won the ACM Award for Vocal Event of the Year.)
Related: See all 2014 ACM Award winners
“It almost didn’t happen,” Robbins said of the song in a phone interview Monday (March 17) with Radio.com. As he recalled, he’d been in a session at his home studio with Nite, and the song idea they had wasn’t going in the right direction, so they put it aside. Then “that afternoon, our friend Nicole was coming over. We pulled that idea out, and she loved it.”
The chorus was their starting point. “Back when that song was a song
I could sing along without thinkin’ ’bout you every time it came on,” Urban and Lambert sing.
“The front half of the chorus we were just singing, and the words phonetically sounded like something,” he explained. “A lot of times when you write a song, you have a hook or a title, and you write from there. This was one of those times where we didn’t have anything. We didn’t know what the hook was until we got there.”
Robbins credits Galyon with coming up with what he calls the “disconnected images” that mark the verses of the song.
“I remember Nicole got really into it,” Robbins said. “She’s from a small town in Kansas, and so I think we were really channeling her home town in this song.”
“Rearview crosses/Railroad ties/Oh, Hail Marys/Friday nights/Heartbeat baby/Low-beam lights/God, I miss when you were mine.”
— “We Were Us”
“It’s easy to listen to and kinda hard to write, to tell a story without really telling a story,” Robbins said. One thing he loves, though, about the result is that it’s not a literal narrative. “It leaves it up to the individual to piece [the story] together and make it their own.”
One of the striking characteristics of “We Were Us” that it’s an upbeat duet. “There are a lot of duets out there,” Robbins said, “but there aren’t a lot that are uptempo with a feel like that. They tend to be super ballads.”
Maybe that characteristic, then, is what helped propel the song to the top of the charts. It was the first male/female duet, in fact, to do so since Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood‘s “Remind Me” in 2011.
“I think that Keith had been toying with the idea of a duet, and my publisher knew that,” Robbins said. As soon as they finished the song, “it was on hold with Keith I think that night. He loved it and put it on hold right then.”
Urban, said Robbins, “had been toying with the idea of a duet, and my publisher knew that.”
And Lambert was on Urban’s mind already as a duet partner. “He toyed with the idea of a few different people, but she was always his first choice,” Robbins explained.
Urban agreed. “I just love Miranda’s voice,” he told Radio.com in a conversation last September, when he was preparing to release his album Fuse. “I love her artistry. We did some shows together many years ago. She got up and did a song with me each night, and I loved our voices together.”
Urban explained that in the back of his mind, he has always hoped that he would find a song that they could duet on together.
“‘We Were Us’ came along, and it’s not the kind of song Miranda would normally do, but her voice is the first one I heard in my head,” he said. “I called her up and sent her the song and she loved it and came to the studio. Blake came along as well and hung out for the day. Miranda and I went in and sang the song and I’m just so happy at the way it turned out.”
“We Were Us” tells the story of two former flames looking back on their lost love.
As for Lambert, she had only praises for her duet partner, as she explained last fall in a behind-the-scenes video.
“He’s been someone that’s inspired me along the way,” she said. “He’s really intense and takes what he does seriously.”
Lambert may have been Urban’s first choice — and she may have loved the song when he played it for her — but getting the two of them onto Urban’s record wasn’t easy.
“It was really down to the wire,” Robbins said. “She’s on a different record label, so there’s a whole other world of red tape — you so many people that have to approve of it for him to be able to use it.” Robbins said he, Nite and Galyon wrote the song last March, and so by the time Urban and Lambert agreed to cut the song, “it was right before [Fuse] was done, and we didn’t know if it was going to be on it or not.”
Ultimately, “We Were Us” made it onto Fuse. And that was a relief for Robbins and his fellow songwriters in more ways than one.
“Songs get cut, and don’t make records, and get cut again,” he explained. “But once we heard Keith and Miranda sing [‘We Were Us’], it would have been hard to hear anybody else sing it, because it sounds like it was made for them.”
The 49th ACM Awards will be broadcast live from Las Vegas on Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 8pm ET on CBS.