Heartland may have “Loved Her First,” but with their debut single of the same name, country music would love them forever.
On June 6th, 2006, country music sextet Heartland released their debut single, “I Loved Her First.”
On October 28th, 2006, the song was certified number one on the Billboard country music charts.
By the end of 2007 the band was all but commercially forgotten.
Their platinum selling single, however, has stood the test of time, re-emerging at number seven on the country music charts in 2015 after a viral video showed a father signing the song to his deaf daughter at her wedding. The video has over 26 million views on YouTube.
The story of “I Loved Her First” begins in 2001 at a writing session between newcomer Elliott Park and veteran Walt Aldridge.
Aldridge had been certified with five number one songs at the time; Elliott Park had never written a song with another person before.
Park says because he was the less accomplished writer, it was his job to bring ideas to the table. After his first two ideas didn’t garner much interest from Aldridge, Park took to the piano and sang the only two lines of a song he had started a year and a half prior, the song that would eventually become “I Loved Her First.”
Although Park brought the idea to the session, he realizes that without Aldridge, “I Loved Her First” would have never existed.
“Walt showed me how to write a hit song that day,” says Park. “It never would have seen the light of day without him.”
Upon its completion, Park and Aldridge were sure they had a major hit on their hands, but getting the song recorded proved to be a much more difficult task than they had anticipated.
“We had heard every reason for passes,” says Aldridge. “It was too sappy, too slow, the lyric made the singer sound too old, so on and so forth.”
Five years after its completion, Aldridge played “I Loved Her First” at a solo show in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. A band called Heartland came up to him after the show and asked Aldridge to help them record the song. Aldridge produced the demo for $500, admitting he never expected to hear from Heartland again.
Three months later, Aldridge got a call from Mike Borchetta (whose son, Scott, discovered and signed Taylor Swift to Big Machine Records a year before), who said he had just signed Heartland to his new independent label, Lofton Creek Records, and wanted to use “I Loved Her First” as the first single for their upcoming album of the same name.
It took Heartland 12 years to get their record deal.
Charles Crawford, fiddler, acoustic guitarist, and backing vocalist of Heartland says “I Loved Her First” was a last ditch effort by the band.
“We would play shows for basically whatever someone wanted to pay us,” says Crawford. “We would take that money and go to Nashville and shop around to labels.”
Crawford says Heartland took the $500 demo of “I Loved Her First” to Lofton Creek Records.
“We didn’t talk about it much, but the song you hear on the radio is the $500 demo,” says Crawford.
Aldridge, who also produced the “I Loved Her First” album, said Borchetta felt the $500 demo could stand up to other songs recorded for $25,000.
“It turns out they were right,” says Aldridge. “It taught us that people respond to human emotions and not great snare drum sounds.”
Crawford admits that before hearing the song on the radio, he didn’t have a lot of hope for it.
“I didn’t have a daughter and the song didn’t speak to me the way it did to millions of people,” says Crawford. “However, after playing a couple of shows, it was easy to see what we had done and how it was going to go over.”
After hearing their song on the radio for the first time, Crawford says, “I think I called everyone I had ever met.”
After it cracked the Top 40, all of the members quit their day jobs and started playing music for a living.
Crawford says at first, the decision was a disaster.
“The record label was not big enough to handle the demand for the song,” says Crawford. “People were paying hundreds of dollars for the song on eBay because you couldn’t buy it in stores.”
Hoping to ride their hot hand, Heartland released their second single, another ballad called “Built to Last”, also written by Elliott Park. This song didn’t receive nearly as much interest, peaking at number 58 on country music charts.
Park said the song was an attempt by the label to make lightning strike twice.
“Everything we did was compared to ‘I Loved Her First,” says Crawford. “We couldn’t win.”
After “Built to Last” and the next single, “Let’s Get Dirty,” which did not chart at all, the band fell apart. Four of the six members left to support their families. Crawford and lead singer Jason Albert, not ready to fully give up on the band, went on a hiatus.
The most bittersweet moment came soon after, when Albert was playing an acoustic show in a park. The guests of a nearby wedding asked him to stop playing so the father and daughter could do their dance.
“They used our song,” says Crawford. “They never knew they told the guy who sang it to stop playing.”
Now that time has passed, Park, Aldridge, and Crawford all look back with fond memories of their experiences.
“I don’t regret a thing,” says Crawford. “For a short time, I got to do what many people can only dream of.”
Park said the song gave him an open door to write with anyone he wanted. However, the success gave him an internal pressure to live up to the song.
“I eventually realized there is just no living up to that experience,” says Park. “It was a Cinderella story that can never quite be duplicated.”
Park says he is content with his career being remembered for the song.
“Most writers never even get the experience,” says Park. “I mean, it could have been ‘The Macarena’ or some silly hit like that.”
Aldridge says that there are very few weeks that go by in the summer where he doesn’t hear of someone using the song.
“For me, being a part of so many special days is a great blessing,” says Aldridge. “We don’t get checks for that, but it’s what motivates us to continue to express ourselves in our songs.”
“The music business is a fun job if you can get it,” says Crawford, “but you better be ready for a ride.”
Update: Thanks in large part to the success of “I Loved Her First,” Heartland was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2017.