Once a week after school in 2005, teenage Taylor Swift would bounce into Nashville songwriter Liz Rose's office, blond curls everywhere, chatting excitedly about her day. She liked to grab water and maybe a handful of M&Ms before she settled in behind a guitar or piano. Then, abruptly, she would snap into work mode and start to write a song, with a laser-like focus that might surprise anyone who has spent time with a teen.
One afternoon, Swift told Rose, "I had this idea in math class today." The song was about her boyfriend who was going off to college, and how she hoped he would think of her every time he heard a Tim McGraw ballad. Swift sang her opening line: "He said the way my blue eyes shine put those Georgia stars to shame that night/I said, 'That's a lie.'"
Of course, that became "Tim McGraw," Swift's debut single released 10 years ago on June 19, 2006. Little did anyone know that song would trigger the start of Swift's career, as in the last decade, she's gone from teenage country singer to the most famous pop star on the planet.
"I mean, I was catching flak: 'What are you doing writing with a 14-year-old?'" her co-writer Rose, one of the top songwriters in Nashville, recalled recently by phone. "I was like, 'Hey, this kid's brilliant, and it's the easiest, funnest thing I do all week. And too bad y'all are not a part of it.'"
Too bad indeed – "Tim McGraw" went platinum and landed in the Top 10 on the Billboard chart, a sign of things to come. Looking back now, Rose says it's surreal that song started Swift's journey.
Rose first met Swift at a Nashville writer's round, where songwriters get together to perform their songs. Swift, signed as a writer to Sony/ATV Publishing at the time, asked Rose if she would be interested in getting together for a co-write. Rose agreed and the two quickly hit it off.
"The first time we wrote, I walked out and said, 'I don't know what I was doing there,'" Rose said. "She really didn't need me."
While working on "Tim McGraw," Rose took on her usual role when writing with Swift, which was editing. While Rose is primarily a lyricist, she said Swift would come in full of her own ideas for the words and the melody, and Rose would mostly give her suggestions of what to cut and what to swap around, sometimes taking something Swift said and turning it into a lyric.
However, when Swift suggested calling the song "Tim McGraw," Rose was a bit doubtful about that direct title – though she didn't want to second-guess Swift, who seemed to know exactly what she was doing and had a complete picture of the song in mind.
"It was so bold of her…The Nashville songwriter in me was like, 'Okay, this is weird, but if that's what you want to do," Rose admits. "I did think it was a little strange. I was like, 'What's Tim going to think?'"
Regardless, the two finished work on the song fairly quickly the same day they started it; Rose said she doesn't even think Swift made a demo tape. As soon as the president of Swift's label, Scott Borchetta, heard Swift play the song, he immediately declared it her first single. The decision paid off – and as it turned out, McGraw was quite flattered by the call-out.
The Swift-Rose collaboration wound up being lucrative, as the two wrote more than a dozen songs together. Rose remembers many memorable Swift co-songwriting experiences, such as penning Grammy Award-winning "White Horse" in the studio, or writing "Fearless" — the title track of her Grammy-winning sophomore album — backstage while Swift was on tour with Rascal Flatts.
Or the time they wrote the smash "You Belong With Me" and Rose tried to talk Swift out of the wording for the line "I'm in my room, it's a typical Tuesday night," urging her to go with the more common Friday or Saturday. Swift was adamant they keep it Tuesday – and clearly it worked out pretty well. (We emailed her spokesperson to see if Swift could elaborate about the songwriting process.)
Once, several years later when Swift was working on her "Red" album, she called Rose and asked for her help with the lyrics for a song called "All Too Well," which was way too long. "Do you think you could come over in about an hour?" Swift asked.
At the time, Rose was in the middle of a move and battling a terrible sinus infection. "Sure!" Rose responded, trying not to sound sick. "Absolutely, I've got nothing going on." She threw the movers her keys, got some Kleenex, and was out the door.
It was a wise choice, as the song is now a fan-favorite album cut. Rose knew early on that when Swift called, you should drop everything – unlike those in Nashville who originally scoffed at writing with a teenager.
"Yeah," Rose laughs. "There's a lot of writers in town kicking themselves."