Music

Story Behind the Song: Tim McGraw's First No. 1, 'Don't Take the Girl'

FILE--Tim McGraw displays his award after winning Top New Male Vocalist at the 30th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, in this May 10, 1995, file photo. A Louisiana arbitration panel has decided Tim McGraw's former manager is due a percentage of his earnings under a five-year contract signed in 1989. The panel says Carol Booth is due about $500,000 at present, but the total could climb into the millions. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Tim McGraw still tugs at country fans' heartstrings whenever they hear his first No. 1 hit, 1994's "Don't Take The Girl."

While prior top 10 country single and top 20 crossover hit "Indian Outlaw" signaled McGraw's mainstream arrival, "Don't Take the Girl's" chart-topping success and its own top 20 spot on Billboard's all-genre Hot 100 chart established that country music's newest hit-maker was no flash in the pan. Both "Indian Outlaw" and "Don't Take the Girl" appear on McGraw's sophomore album, Not a Moment Too Soon.

McGraw's breakthrough follows how drastically the phrase "don't take the girl" can change as a young boy grows up to be a husband and father. It's a story that can make a cold heart melt, but don't get too upset over its abrupt ending-- its music video offers hope that Johnny's wife survives the song's tense final verse.

"Don't Take The Girl" finished 30th on the Billboard Hot Country Songs' year-end chart, with the single that followed it, "Down on the Farm," finishing fifth.

Co-writer Craig J. Martin, who passed away on July 3, 2020, came up with the song's melody and title at a trying time in his life.

Back then, Martin's early '90s stint as a Mercury Records recording artist had gone South, and one of the few things pulling him through that disappointment was his beautiful, new girlfriend.

"I came home recording one day, and I was sitting on the couch," Martin says in a Nov. 2017 video. "She was going to make me a homemade pizza to try to cheer me up a little bit. It was a very, very small apartment in Madison, Tenn. You could see the kitchen from the couch. I was sitting there watching her make this homemade pizza, which I saw the Chef Boyardee box out there. The thought was what counted."

Something as simple as a loved one preparing a tiny pizza switched Martin's brain into songwriter mode.

"I had this melody in my head, and at the same time I was a little depressed and was thinking about how this record deal was going," he adds. "I was kind of talking under my breath to God, and I thought. 'You can take this record deal or this great publishing deal or any of my possessions. Take any of it. Just don't take her.' She was that important to me. We ended up staying together for 17 years, though I had a terrible, terrible brain cramp one time and messed it all up."

When it came time for Martin to work a co-write with Larry Johnson, a specific idea from Martin's personal life transformed into something with universal appeal.

Johnson died in June 2020.

In 2019, McGraw proved that his first multi-platinum hit had aged well when he revisited "Don't Take the Girl" with "The Git Up" singer Blanco Brown.

"Don't Take the Girl" Lyrics

Johnny's daddy was taking him fishin'
When he was eight years old

Little girl came through the front gate
Holdin' a fishing pole
His dad looked down and smiled
He said, "We can't leave her behind"
"Son, I know you don't want her to go
But someday you'll change your mind"
And Johnny said
"Take Jimmy Johnson
Take Tommy Thompson
Take my best friend, Bo
Take anybody that you want as
Long as she don't go
Take any boy in the world
Daddy please, don't take the girl"

Same old boy, same sweet girl
Ten years down the road
He held her tight and kissed her lips in
Front of the picture show
Stranger came and pulled a gun
Grabbed her by the arm said
"If you do what I tell you to
There won't be any harm"
And Johnny said "Take my money
Take my wallet
Take my credit cards
Here's the watch that my Grandpa gave me
Here's the key to my car
Mister give it a whirl
But please don't take the girl"

Same old boy
Same sweet girl
Five years down the road
There's gonna be a little one and she
Says it's time to go
Doctor says the baby's fine
But you'll have to leave
'Cause his momma's fading fast and
Johnny hit his knees and there he prayed
"Take the very breath you gave me
Take the heart from my chest
I'll gladly take her place if you'll let me
Make this my last request
Take me out of this world
God, please don't take the girl"

Johnny's daddy
Was taking him fishin'
When he was eight years old

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Story Behind the Song: Tim McGraw's First No. 1, 'Don't Take the Girl'