Cole Swindell on the Inspirations Behind ‘She Had Me at Heads Carolina’ & His Own Karaoke Origin Story
With his latest single, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” Cole Swindell has earned the longest-reigning Country Airplay hit of his career — four weeks at No. 1 and counting, while also crossing over to a career-best No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 — with a tale of a chance meeting at a karaoke night that leads to romance. The song’s retro-tinged vibe also nods to the moment’s ‘90s country music craze, as it interpolates lyrical and melodic elements of the 1996 Jo Dee Messina song “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s then-named Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
“I’ve been doing this for a little while, but I don’t remember a song being quite like this,” says Swindell, who has notched seven Billboard Country Airplay chart leaders during his career. “It’s really new territory, seeing it move up the charts like it is and seeing the crowd reactions in concert.”
Swindell says the song’s karaoke bar setting is a full-circle moment, given that his own musical aspirations have their origins at a karaoke night in Panama City Beach, Florida. That evening marked Swindell’s first time getting up to sing in front of an audience.
“I was in high school and we would go to Panama City for vacations. We were at a place called the Quarterdeck, a little seafood place that had karaoke,” Swindell recalls. “In ‘She Had Me at Heads Carolina,’ the girl’s friends talk her into getting up there, and that’s what happened to me. I sang Lonestar’s [1999 country crossover hit] ‘Amazed,’ and looking back, that’s not an easy song to sing. I hadn’t done any performing – maybe I’d sing if someone had a guitar and we had some friends hanging at the beach. But they talked me into getting up there and that kind of sparked the whole thing. People were like, ‘What? You can sing!’
He filmed the video for “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie located in the Printer’s Alley area of Nashville, and across the street from a longtime Nashville karaoke establishment, Ms. Kelli’s, which Swindell says he and his friends have long frequented.
“If it’s the right night and the right mood, we’ll swing by Ms. Kelli’s,” Swindell says of his own Nashville karaoke experiences. “It’s just a bare-bones place, but Ms. Kelli’s is one of my buddy’s favorite karaoke spot in Nashville, and one of my favorite places.”
The Georgia native calls George Strait’s 1997 hit “Carrying Your Love With Me” his go-to karaoke song, noting that he often plays it as part of a medley in his own concert sets.
Swindell says he hasn’t had the time to do karaoke recently, but says he’s heartened by the videos he’s seen of other people singing “She Had Me at Heads Carolina”: “I’ve seen videos here and there of people doing this song and it’s hard to believe it’s already out there for karaoke. But how many times have we heard someone sing the original [“Heads Carolina, Tails California”]? And you know when someone sings that, it’s going to get the crowd going.”
Swindell wrote the song with fellow artist-writer Thomas Rhett, as well as Nashville fixtures Ashley Gorley and Jesse Frasure, while the song’s credits also include “Heads Carolina, Tails California” writers Mark D. Sanders and Tim Nichols. “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” is included on Swindell’s 2022 album Stereotype.
“When we were touring together, me and TR [Thomas Rhett] talked about taking a song we loved and putting our own spin on it. But when we settled on “Heads Carolina,” obviously, it’s got Carolina and California in it, but TR and I are from Georgia. The only angle that worked was the idea of walking in somewhere and the girl be singing that song.” Swindell first reached out to “Heads Carolina, Tails California songwriters Mark D. Sanders and Tim Nichols for their blessing. “Later I got a chance to talk with Jo Dee and she was cool with it. I got let her know what a fan I was and that I wanted her to be involved.” Messina has a cameo as a bartender in the music video for “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” which also includes a cameo from Nichols.
Co-writer Gorley adds, “Cole is a human jukebox, who knows every album cut from everything, from the nineties on. If there’s anybody that can sing the line, ‘She’s a ‘90s country fan, like I am,’ it’s just the perfect marriage of all that stuff. We all agreed the karaoke angle was the way to go with it. Once we had the ‘She had me at,’ angle, it was on. I loved the process of using the elements of Jo Dee’s song and flipping it into some different things.”
Swindell says he’s working on a collaborative performance of the song with Messina. “We’re trying to figure it out, how to mesh together her original song with this for a performance. I feel like the first time we do perform the song together, it will be special.” For Swindell, it is meaningful to have a song that reimagines a hit song he listened to 25 years ago.
“[Jo Dee is] one of the artists that made me love country music,” Swindell says. “Just to honor that and ‘90s country music and to now call her a friend, and even having her in the video, it’s hard to put into words. After 10 years of being in this business, It feels like a new beginning.”