Marv Green: The Stories Behind ‘I Called Mama,’ ‘Creepin” and ‘It Just Comes Natural’
The 100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers limited series podcast gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. Each episode will focus on one writer: sometimes, they’ll just talk about one song, other times, they’ll talk about a number of hits.
New episodes will be released each Monday through November of 2020.
100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers special podcast series is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast.
Tim McGraw never intended for “I Called Mama” to become a single when he heard the song at the beginning of 2020. But in March, the world changed, and the song took on a heavier meaning; it’ll likely be one of the country songs that we think about in the future, when we think about 2020. Marv Green is one of the co-writers of the song, and we spoke to him about it, as well as some other classics that he had a hand in writing.
Talk about writing “I Called Mama.”
Well, that was something that [co-writer] Mr. Jimmy Yeary brought in. True story: he actually did get a call about a good friend who passed away, suddenly, out of nowhere, I believe the guy was in his late forties. And he walked in just saying, “You guys, I just feel like I really want to write about this today.”
Because this had happened, he just stopped for a minute and wanted to slow everything down. And one of the things he wanted to do was call his mom, which I completely relate to. And Lance [Miller, co-writer] did, too. And we were off to the races. Sometimes you write a chorus first. But this song we wrote, top to bottom, just as you hear it. It kind of wrote itself with us, you know.
We’ve had a good little vibe. And, you know, sometimes you get a little circle of friends and you get on a little roll. And somewhere the end of last year, somewhere around last fall, we started writing as a trio and we’ve really had some great luck.
And so, anyway, Jimmy Yeary came walking in my studio that day and said what had happened. “I Called Mama” was where his heart and his head was. We agreed it was just a nice way to talk about life.
I’m guessing you wrote this song before the pandemic.
We did. Right before: we wrote this in February of this year, if I’m correct. This is one of those songs that didn’t live long as a demo. It never got to be a demo because we recorded it on an iPhone.
I’ve known Tim for a long time, but Lance knows him better. And Lance sent it straight to Tim, and Tim loved it.
I’d heard that Tim may not have intended it to be a single, but obviously, things changed.
I think he was quoted as saying, “I never, never planned for this song to be a single.” He really was proud and excited to put on his record. But there was no plan in his mind they would be a single.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from people about “I Called Mama?”
Lots of texts and really sweet, nice messages from co-writers and friends. Just, you know, just saying, “Wow, I love that song.” And that’s the great thing about the community here. We’re all rooting for each other.
So, Tim posts the song on social media. Do you look to see what people are saying about it?
[Laughs] I try not to. But if you’re talking about Instagram or Facebook, Tim is on my friend [list] so it’s gonna pop up. And it’s hard not to look. And the good news is I haven’t seen any negative [comments], which is not always the case. Lots of sweet comments about people who get called their mom or wish they could call their mom.
Everyone has their own individual taste. But during this time, a song like that… I feel like you’d have to be a real troll to say, “You know, that song just isn’t good!”
[Laughs] Yeah, I agree. You have to be in quite the mood to put that down. One radio personality said it’s “a hug and a nice bowl of chicken soup.”
And don’t we all need that right now?
Are you and Tim friends, or is more of a transactional thing, where you write songs and submit them, and he decides if he wants them?
As much as I could know, Tim, I know him. He’s one of those artists that, if I see him in town or at an event or a party [we say hi]. I’ve actually got a quick anecdote about seeing him at a party at Christmas. But I’ll tell you that in a second. He’s one of those guys that always says, “Hey, Marv.” It could be across the room or whatever, but he’s just genuine and he has always been that guy that keeps in touch. It’s not like he reaches out frequently, but he always has left the door open, all the way back to [2000’s] “Let’s Make Love” and [2001 album] Set This Circus Down. We had some songs on that. And ever since then, he has always said, “Send me songs.” I’m very lucky to be someone that he reaches out and says, “Hey, hit me with anything that you have.”
I interviewed Lori McKenna a few years ago, she wrote “Humble and Kind.” She kind of said the same thing about him: that he is as normal of a guy as someone who’s a star on that level could be.
Here’s two quick ones. So one was at some event. This is a true story. I was talking to Tim for like 30 seconds. And then he gets real close. He goes, “Marv, your zipper’s down.” [Laughs] I had forgotten to zip up my pants zipper. Thanks, Tim!
And then the other great one: so you know, I’m a songwriter, I’ve done fine, but I’m not the guy that has, like, a suit jacket for everything. I have a couple of nice jackets and suits for a few occasions, but I don’t have a bunch.
I was at a Christmas party last this past Christmas, And Tim and Faith were there. And so we’re talking for a minute and he’s looking at me and he looks again and he grabs my lapel and he goes, “Marv, this is your CMA [Awards] jacket and your BMI Awards jacket.” [Laughs]
I said, “Yep, you got me, Tim. I don’t have a bunch of suits.”
Talk about writing “Let’s Make Love” for Tim and Faith.
So during that time, this would probably be around ’99, 2000, I was writing a bunch with some friends and co-writers, Aimee Mayo, Chris Lindsey — who I wrote the song “Amazed” with [for Lonestar] — and then Bill Lither. Bill had had success with Aimee with Tim. I called them all and I said, “For the month of March, let’s pretend we’re a band. Let’s just write with each other.” Because I was noticing back then, CDs from people like Jim Lauderdale and Kim Richey and those kind of writers, they were ending up on artist’s buses and they were getting cuts that way. I said, “Well, why don’t we just pretend we’re a group and write for a whole month? And at the end, we’re going to go in and record the 10 or 12 best songs that we got. We’ll print it, we’ll have a party, we’ll invite labels and artists to come and we’ll call it ‘the March Project.'” And so they loved it. We spent the whole month and we knew Tim and Faith were both doing projects and our main focus was writing for them.
And so we put “Let’s Make Love” on that project. And sure enough, when they heard it, they loved it and recorded it. And off that same project, we ended up getting three songs on the Tim McGraw solo record too.
Have you been in situations where people are listening to a song that you wrote, whether it’s at a wedding or at the supermarket or whatever, and they have no idea they’re standing next to the guy who wrote that song?
Oh, yeah, all the time. And, you know, probably the strangest moments, you know, when you’re down in front of an artist [at a concert] and there’s, you know, 10,000 or 12,000 or 14,000 people singing your song and you’re standing there, going, “Hey, I wrote this! But nobody cares!” And that’s OK. I mean, it’s just one of those things. There’s a beauty in it: we can go anywhere and travel anywhere and no one knows who we are. We enjoy writing music for a living and doing what we love, but still being able to, you know, be unknown. There’s a beauty in that. But there are a couple of times, whether it’s “It Just Comes Natural” with George Strait or “Creepin'” with Eric Church, and you see the crowds going crazy. And [you wonder], “Eric, what does that feel like?” But again, there’s a beauty. I can go sit at any given restaurant and no one cares who I am.
Tell me about “Creepin’.”
We wrote that down at the Sony Fire Hall, which used to actually be a fire station back in the day. And Eric was a little late. Whenever I’ve written with him, I always have something ready. But he always comes in and knows what he wants to do that day. And I love that about him. And he started describing sittin’ on his screened-in porch watching this bee buzzing against the screened-in porch. And he started singing the very top of that, [singing] “I got my baby, no, no. I got a little buzz and my head is sore.”
And then he goes, “I’m thinking in my mind, all the chorus does is just go ‘Creepin’!'” I was like, “Man, I love this!” We just kind of hopped right in and took off. And the cool other thing about that song is, remember, we’re in there with two acoustic guitars and playing against each other. I’m singing a little harmony. We recorded it as is. And so when he left, I was thinking to myself, “Well, that’s a very Appalachian sort of backwoods kind of thing.” And that’s the last I heard of it.
And then they call and say, “Hey, we’re in the studio, cuttin’ ‘Creepin’!'” And in my mind I’m going, “Well, I wonder what that’s going to be. Is it going to be just kind of this acoustic, backwoodsy kind of vibe?” And then when I heard the record, I was blown away what he and [producer] Jay Joyce did. I mean, what a record.
George Strait’s “It Just Comes Natural” is such an iconic tune.
That’s during the time when [I was working with] another great producer, Tony Brown. I mean, talk about an open door. I used to love to go play songs for Tony. So it was crazy because I think that for that record, I think there were four songs that Tony loved. And he said, “Marv, I wouldn’t be surprised if you get three or four [songs] on this record.” And I was like, “OK.”
“It Just Comes Natural,” I wrote with Jim Collins, who is from Texas. And so I walk in and I’ve got [sings] “Sunshine, clouds, rain/Train whistle blows…” I had a verse about things that sort of happened naturally. And then I sang the chorus: [sings] “And I love you.”
And Jim said, “We can’t call this song, ‘I Love You.'” And I said, “Well, what about ‘It Just Comes Naturally?'”
And he looks at me and says, “No, “It Just Comes Natural.'” And I said, “No, that’s not grammatically correct. ‘It Just Comes Naturally.'”
He goes, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t sing. ‘It Just Comes Natural’ sings better.” And I said, “All right, Mr. Texas.” And sure enough, he was right. And that totally resonated with George.
I know you’ve made your own records. You’ve recorded your own versions of some of the songs that you’ve written that other people have recorded. Do you have a new record of your own coming?
Well, the next thing I’m gonna do is new original songs. I have not recorded anything. I mean, I’ve got a couple things out there. But I haven’t made a recording I’m proud of and that, I feel like is “me.” So whatever I do next is gonna be all original, unrecorded. I’m just trying to find that happy place between all things acoustic and electric.