15 Years Later, Tim McGraw’s ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ Maintains Its Emotional Sting
Like John Michael Montgomery's “The Little Girl” and Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’ “Whiskey Lullaby,” Tim McGraw's Grammy-winning 2004 hit “Live Like You Were Dying” stands out as a 21st century country song that's unlikely to lose its emotional sting in our ever-changing world. One of McGraw's better-aged singles in a catalog of evergreen songs, the megahit remains relevant because it faces a blight on society head-on.
Few families get by unscathed by cancer. Per the National Cancer Institute, projected numbers for 2018 included 1,735,350 new cases diagnosed in the United States, with 609,640 people expected to die from the disease. These horrifying odds directly affected the singer when his father, former major league pitcher Tug McGraw, lost his own battle with brain cancer a few months before "Live Like You Were Dying" spent seven weeks on top of the charts beginning on July 17, 2004.
After a mutual friend’s health scare, "Live Like You Were Dying" songwriters Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman started considering how loved ones cope with the fear that comes with cancer diagnoses. Ultimately, they wrote a song that inspires listeners to enjoy whatever time they get to spend with their family and friends.
“I don’t think either of us knew, when we heard the record, that it would win every award in country music that you can win,” Nichols told Parade in 2014. “We wound up writing a little inspirational gift book for Thomas Nelson, and it wound up on the New York Times bestseller list. And Craig and I both play a fair amount of writers’ shows and corporate events, and I tell you, it seems like without fail, somebody will come up and have some story they want to share about the song and what it meant to them, or a friend or family member in their life. Or they lost someone and played the song at their funeral, and said, ‘My friend lived like this was their life.’”
Nichols is hardly a one-song wonder, having co-written a number of hits, namely Jo Dee Messina's “Heads Carolina, Tails California” and the Keith Whitley and Earl Thomas Conley duet “Brotherly Love.” Wiseman’s legacy transcends “Live Like You Were Dying” as well, with noteworthy compositions including Brooks & Dunn's “Believe” and McGraw’s “Where the Green Grass Grows.” Still, a bio of either talent should mention “Live Like You Were Dying” in its first paragraph — it’s that vital among this century’s best singles.
Historically speaking, country singers have always told stories written to connect with a large audience’s individual experiences; therefore, it makes sense for “three chords and the truth” to incorporate such a widespread and deadly disease. Plus, cancer has long affected country stars, from such survivors as Sheryl Crow and Randy Owen to the heartbreaking death of Joey Feek. It's impossible to ignore, even within our sources of entertainment.
McGraw’s "Live Like You Were Dying" fits need in society's relationship with country music. Though others broached the topic directly (Martina McBride’s “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” and Darius Rucker’s “Possibilities”) and indirectly (Paisley’s “Today”), even those important songs fall a little short of the magic McGraw, Nichols and Wiseman brought to a difficult yet necessary discussion.
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