Robert James Waller"s 1992 novel "The Bridges of Madison County" isn"t just one of the best-selling books of all time. It also inspired a hit film, and eventually a musical. Waller"s next novel, "Border Music" didn"t make the same impact — but it did inspire Mark D. Sanders and Tim Nichols to write a hit song. Jo Dee Messina took "Heads Carolina, Tails California" to the No. 2 spot in 1996. Sanders and Nichols told the story behind the song to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.

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Another form of media starts this whole idea, right?

TN: That’s right. The idea came from a book on tape. Mark’s heard me tell this story several times before. It was not a very good book on tape…He wrote "The Bridges of Madison County" was a huge, huge book. Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep were in the movie. So, the book was so great that I was like, well I’ll listen to it on tape. I always liked to listen to books on tape. So, I listened to that and I was like, "Okay, cool." Then I was like, "Well, what else has got?" And I picked up this book called "Border Music."


I was living in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, back then and I would have 20 minutes (to listen in the car) every day there and back between Music Row. The main character’s name was Texas Jack Carmine. Things were not going well for him in Texas so he decided he needed to leave Texas and the way he was going to decide where to go was going to flip a coin. Heads he was going to go to California and tails he was going to go to Mexico.


MS: Tim told me that (idea) and you know, my mind just starts working. I’m from California and I always thought Carolina is a beautiful word to start with. It has a mystique to it. There is a coast on Carolina. There is a coast on California. (But) I knew that California and Mexico didn’t work.

Was it one of those days where it was quick? Did quickly that day or over time?

TN: I think we wrote it in a day but we pitched it around. Jo Dee (Messina) wasn’t the first one to hear it. We pitched it around a fair amount I think.

MS: I don’t remember that. All I remember is you putting it in her dang mailbox.

Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw produced the record.

TN: That’s right. They had cut a song of mine that I wrote with Zach Turner called “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore” and then I had heard in the wind that they might be looking for a song that (Jo Dee) could do as a duet with Tim. So, I called Mark and said, “Man, I think ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California’ could be the perfect song for them.” I called her I just felt it. I said, “Jo Dee, this is the song. I’ve got the song.” She said, “Well just put it in my mailbox.” Because at that time…

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About the series

In partnership with Nashville Songwriters Association International, we will release a video interview with a songwriter about his or her work each week.