“I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights/ I slashed a hole in all four tires/ Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.”
There’s no “next time” for a song like Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” – a 2006 genre-defying country smash whose success simply cannot be repeated.
Songwriters Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins knew they were onto something from those first two words: “Right now.” But at first, they had a very different idea of which country artist they were writing for. They told the story behind the song to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Bart Herbison: I don’t think this started out as a song for (Underwood), right?”
Chris Tompkins: It didn’t start off as a song for Carrie. It basically started off as a song for Gretchen Wilson. I went to a computer and was just typing what I wanted to be edgy lyrics. After the success of “Redneck Woman,” everyone wanted to get on the next (Gretchen) record. I typed up part of that verse and thought I had something kind of cool. From that point, I called Josh.
Josh Kear: I drove over to Chris’ place on a Saturday and we sat on his back patio. He had already told me he had something started for Gretchen and to come over so we could finish it. He played me the first two lines of the song exactly the way they are: word for word. Melodically, it was perfect.
BH: I ask this question a lot but you kind of had to know you were onto something special, even at that point?
JK: It was easy to say it was different and unique. This isn’t just another co-writing session. I kind of feel that way a lot with Chris when he walks in with something already going. Even if it’s just a first line, usually with Chris, it’s really dang good.
BH: Y’all had just finished this great song for her – (but) that doesn’t happen. Tell us what happened.
JK: I get a phone call from Chris telling me that I won’t believe it, but Carrie Underwood is going to record our song. I was like, “Dude, that’s great! I don’t know who Carrie Underwood is, but that’s awesome!” He schooled me very quickly in American Idol and the fact that she had just won. I obviously didn’t watch much television at the time, and he said, “No, you don’t understand. That album is going to be HUGE!” I had no reason not to believe him, but even hearing him say it, I (still) had no idea what was coming.
BH: Well, Carrie Underwood is a once in every three-generation entertainer. “Jesus, Take the Wheel” is on that record and earlier we had talked about this and I had kind of forgotten this timeline, but how does Carrie get the song?
JK: Well, obviously, the Gretchen thing had passed. We were told that the first time Carrie heard this song, it was during the American Idol tour and it was in the back of the plane as they were getting ready to fly from one location of that tour, to the next. Somebody on the label had come up, played her the demo. She listened to it once and said, “I’m cutting that song.” There was no discussion of putting it on hold or just letting us know they would sit with it. It was just one listen and knowing she would record it.
CT: I thought the record was just amazing. We cut a good demo, but the singer we used on the demo was amazing, but a completely different type of voice. Basically, as soon as we heard it, with the fiddle, it felt new and fresh. We knew it was something special.
JK: I don’t know how intentional it was on Chris’ part when he was writing the song, but it begins with the words “right now” which automatically gives it an urgency, an immediacy.
BH: And a reference point.
JK: And a reference point! It’s literally happening right now. It’s so simple, but at the same time, when you are trying to create immediacy and urgency, it was such a simple way to do it. It was followed by each line saying that it might be happening. It says, “Right now, he’s probably,” but it doesn’t say he is!
BH: This one, if I remember, went up the charts, hit its peak, but didn’t fall like most songs do. It hung around. I remember that it got played for a long time.
JK: For a long time. As a matter of fact, it started charting on Billboard while “Jesus, Take the Wheel” was out. Another single came out after that, then, “Before He Cheats” came out. It was the third single off the album. “Inside Your Heaven” had only been sent to pop radio. The album came out during “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” charted through all three of the singles.
CT: Kudos to the label. Knowing all the charting stuff, we thought it had to be the next single and they told us it wasn’t and the reason was because “Jesus, Take the Wheel” was huge and they felt like “Before He Cheats” was going to be huge and they wanted to separate the song for airplay purposes.
BH: I remember all this because DJs and the public loved that song.
JK: It was definitely creating a stir at the moment. They had some things lining up where they wanted “Before He Cheats” to be a certain moment in her career. There were awards shows coming up that they had planned for. So, they pushed them apart which turned out to be great for us. While it was still climbing the country charts, it started appearing at the bottom of the Top 40 charts and edging onto AC, the pop side of the label started pushing it elsewhere. It spent 5 weeks on country charts. It set fire to pop radio and AC radio as well. It was a perfect storm for us. It was her and the song. The song, or her by herself, might not have done that. But the two things together are magic.
BH: I bet it opened up a lot of doors for songwriting, too. Everyone knew who you were.
CT: Absolutely. Same for Josh. We both started doing outside of country co-writes. I started going to L.A. until I stopped going to L.A. I started writing with some rock bands. No matter what genre of music I was writing, they all knew that song.
BH: You are both humble. I will tell you the industry was cheering for you. It’s one of those songs that comes along every 20 years that writers love and are jealous of. Could you do a better job?
JK: It’s pretty rare that people’s first number one blows up the way that one did. Both of us had been in town for a long time. I’d been in town 10 years with a publishing deal, Chris, I think you’d had one for seven at that point. We had a lot of friends that wanted to see us succeed and when it did on that kind of level, we were very fortunate that we had a lot of folks behind us.
WATCH Carrie Underwood – Before He Cheats (Official Video) VIDEO BELOW:
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