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Tim McGraw didn’t imagine himself writing a song for the mountain climbing film ‘Free Solo’ — until he saw it

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Of “Gravity,” the song about overcoming challenges he composed with Lori McKenna for the film “Free Solo,” Tim McGraw says, “There are a lot of things in your life that can be gravity, a lot of things that can pull you away from your goal.”
(David Needleman)

Tim McGraw wasn’t sure about writing a song for “Free Solo,” the documentary of Alex Honnold’s incredible ropeless assault on a 3,000-foot Yosemite rock face.

“‘Free Solo,’ what is that? I was thinking it was a ‘Star Wars’ thing,” the country-music superstar says with a laugh on a rare break from a relentless schedule.

When he learned of the film’s substance, he thought, “I don’t know anything about mountain climbing; I’m not gonna climb a mountain by any stretch of the imagination, ropes or no ropes. I said, ‘Gosh, I’m finishing up the second year of the Soul2Soul tour with my wife [fellow country superstar Faith Hill] …’

“People don’t know this, but I’ve been finishing shows and flying home and being in the studio 16, 18 hours, sleeping on the couch in the studio, working on my next solo project. I just didn’t know if I had the energy, the time, the mental capacity.

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“Then I saw it, and it blew me away. I was taking notes the whole time I was watching it. I sent it to [co-composer] Lori McKenna and said, ‘Watch this; see what you think.’ She called me the next day and she was blown away, and she sent me all the notes she’d taken and they were almost identical. Same themes, same phrases, everything.”

McGraw and McKenna quickly generated “Gravity,” a song about overcoming challenges and ascending, marked by descending vocal runs that could suggest a great height.

“The first question we asked, Lori and I, was, ‘What mountain are you climbing in life?’ What barriers are in your way? Are you the barrier that’s in your way? How do you break ’em down?’”

“Free Solo” affords an up-close-and-personal look at Honnold, capturing minute details of his lonely, unprecedented, death-defying climb. It also puts his effort in perspective with the breathtaking vista earned only by those who conquer El Capitan (until then, only with the use of ropes).

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“Gravity” attempts to capture that same mix of intimacy, internal drive and scope — and the power to bend the impossible to one’s will. “In your head / in your heart / in your hands,” the chorus repeats, landing on, “Gravity’s a fragile thing.

“Gravity’s gravity. It is what it is,” says McGraw. “But there are a lot of things in your life that can be gravity, a lot of things that can pull you away from your goal. The ‘fragility’ is the connection you have with your hands, your heart and your head. For instance, if you’re talking about love, being tactilely, physically involved with somebody is an important thing. But the physicality doesn’t mean anything if your heart’s not involved and if you’re not present in your mind. None of those things will work individually in the long run.”

The initial demo (“Lori on acoustic guitar on her iPhone,” he says) was heavy on the intimacy, lighter on the scope.

McGraw says the filmmakers “loved the song, but they weren’t sure if they could get the energy they wanted to match the visuals of the film, what the audience had just seen. I said, ‘Trust me, I know exactly what I want to do sonically. I know the guitars I want to have in it. I know the strings — David Campbell did the strings, who’s one of the best there is.”

The first lines — “Look what you’ve overcome to get here / Look at the distance you’ve run …” — are a nod to Honnold’s personal and physical journey, as well as that grand vista. Looking down from there, the vocal runs make sense.

“I was just trying to sing in a way that was very emotional. I’m not this great vocalist,” says the multiple Grammy winner and 75-million-record-selling country artist. “I was trying to communicate my emotions from seeing the film and what I think the film was saying overall.”

McGraw and longtime producing partner Byron Gallimore gathered McGraw’s usual suspects to lay it down in the studio before adding strings. Even though the players hadn’t seen the film, together they played and produced with a confidence befitting a film documenting perhaps the ultimate act of self-confidence.

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“We had a 45-minute talk session before we recorded about what this movie meant, what it said, thematically and narratively, what people would take out of it with everything they had going on in their lives. What great art does is make you able to project yourself onto it,” says McGraw.

“People can apply what they see in this film to all kinds of obstacles in their lives, and we wanted the song to reflect that. So we explained all that to the guys, and when we laid the track down, it was magical. We knew we had something special. We didn’t know if [the filmmakers] would end up liking it, but … we thought, ‘If they don’t like it, we know we got something really cool.’”

McGraw admits that though he is a pilot, he is scared of heights (something about a sense of control, he figures, allows him to operate a plane). So while Honnold’s accomplishment may never encourage him to climb a mountain himself, he says, “to put yourself in a position where you cannot make a mistake takes supreme confidence. Supreme preparation. And a purpose and intent you can apply to everything you do in life.”

After the line “Gravity will lie to you,” the final stanza quietly exhorts, “Tell them to never let go.”

“Even in light of the tragedies we experience in our lives daily, weekly, whatever, in the world we live in right now, the animus that’s out in the world right now,” says McGraw, “if we stay connected with each other, if we seek joy with intent and purpose and we try to lead each other to the light — because darkness is a destroyer; it destroys communities — it’s visceral, and it’s emotionally satisfying.…

“It means so much: ‘Never let go.’ ”

FULL COVERAGE: Get the latest on awards season from The Envelope »

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