By Kurt Wolff
According to Jaren Johnston, when he, Tom Douglas and Jeffrey Steele initially wrote their song “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” they never intended for it to be a duet.
“[We] just wrote a folky thing,” the Cadillac Three singer explained to Radio.com of the song—a slower-paced ballad that focuses on the simple pleasures of quiet country life.
So when word came that Tim McGraw was interested in cutting the song, Johnston was blown away. “They said it was going to be a single and I was like, ‘Holy crap! That’s crazy,'” Johnston said.
But the surprises didn’t stop there. The song, he was informed, would not only be a single but a duet between McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill.
“[Big Machine Label Group President] Scott Borchetta said, ‘You know it’s going to be a duet, right?’ And I was like, ‘Who are they going to get?’ I had no idea. He’s like, ‘Faith’s going to sing on it.’ I was like, ‘Score! Touchdown!'”
“Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” was the second radio single from McGraw’s 2014 album Sundown Heaven Town. It earned a good deal or radio airplay, and eventually reached the Top 5 on the country singles charts. Now it’s been nominated for Vocal Event of the Year at the 50th Academy of Country Music Awards.
McGraw has cut a variety of material in his more than two-decade-long career, but “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” stands as one of his quietest moments. Something about the homey, laid-back “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” though, struck him at his emotional core.
It’s a song of reflection that steps aside from our “crazy” modern world, if only for a few brief minutes. It’s a reminder, too, that while country music may continue to evolve in new and different directions, sometimes it’s the simplest, most familiar-sounding melody that captures the moment.
“What I wouldn’t give for a slow down,” McGraw sings in the song, “’cause where I come from, only the horses run.”
“Right off the bat, it probably wasn’t four bars into the songs that I knew I wanted to cut it,” McGraw explains to Radio.com. “The phrasing of it, and what it said, and how it developed…I knew just from the phrasing that I wanted to cut the song right away. Because you sort of had an idea of the gravity of the song.”
McGraw says he first heard the song in the car, after picking his daughter Audrey up from school. The second time was later that same day.
“I got home, I walked into the house and I said, ‘Faith, you’ve got to hear this song.’ So I played her the song, and when it got to the end and it said, ‘me and you back at Mama’s,’ a flood of tears just came down from her eyes.”
He smiles at the memory, and at how immediate a reaction they both had to the song. And he hatched a plan that very moment. “I said, ‘Not only am I going to cut, but you’re going to sing it with me.’ And that’s how it was born, right there.”
McGraw continues to describe why the song was so attractive to him: “Because of what it said, because of our life together, how we felt about family.”
‘Cause meanwhile back at Mama’s
The porch light’s on, come on in if you wanna
Supper’s on the stove and beer’s in the fridge
Red sun sinkin’ out low on the ridge
“Every time we record a song [together], we try to make it feel like it’s a special song,” McGraw says. “Before we think of recording it, we want it to feel special to us. And that song just had ‘special’ written all over it, when we first heard it, together like that.”
Johnston has written hit songs before (McGraw’s “Southern Girl,” Keith Urban’s “You Gonna Fly,” Jake Owen’s “Beachin'” and “Days of Gold”), but as he explained, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” turned out to be “a big moment” for him as a songwriter. That’s because, as McGraw himself explained, the country superstar has only done a handful of duets with his wife. And, notes, Johnson, “those have been mega songs for him. Career songs.”
Johnston also noted that McGraw and Hill didn’t make drastic changes to the song, choosing to keep its laid-back tone and arrangement. “My demo is very similar to what they did,” Johnston says, which he still finds surprising. “I didn’t think anybody would cut it like that as a single. You don’t hear anything like that on the radio anymore.”
Well, apparently now you do.
“Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” serves as a potent reminder that, while country music may continue to evolve in new and different directions, sometimes it’s the simplest, most familiar-sounding melody that captures the moment, and our attention.
The 50th annual ACM Awards air Sunday, April 19 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.