He co-wrote what may be the most iconic father-daughter wedding dance song of all time. A number 1 song that took an unknown sextet called Heartland to a level they had only dreamed of. A song that re-entered the country music charts in 2015, climbing all the way to number 7.
Elliott Park’s words have traveled the world over, creating countless special moments and lifetime memories for brides and their families.
Now, he provides an in-depth look at his hit song “I Loved Her First,” co-written with songwriting legend Walt Aldridge, from its beginnings to where it has taken him today.
JL: What do you remember about the initial writing session of “I Loved Her First”?
EP: Everything. I remember sitting in one of the writing rooms that morning, there in the Starstruck building on Music Row. I was waiting on Walt Aldridge to arrive. Michael Martin (owner of Extreme Writers Group…my publishing co. at that time) had filled me in on Walt’s accolades… so I was pretty nervous. This was not only my first co-writing session under Extreme Writers Group, it was my first writing session with another person, ever. I don’t think my publisher knew that. I was very green. I had two ideas ready to work on. It’s sort of an understood rule that the less accomplished writer brings the ideas to the table. I did know that thankfully. So when he came in, I was sitting at the piano ready to go. After a few minutes of introduction, he sat down, pulled out his guitar and asked, “Well, what are we going to write today?” I played him those first couple of ideas and he didn’t seem too interested. So I kind of pulled this concept out of my satchel… one that I had started a year and a half earlier. I played him the chorus melody and sang the only two lines I had. After a few minutes of playing with the melody on his guitar, he looked at me and said, “I really like that idea. Let’s see what we can do with it.” Walt took the reins on that session and showed me how to write a number one song. I truly believe had he not been the co-writer, I would have over-worked it and it would have never seen the light of day. A true professional. I wish there were more writers like him still on music row.
JL: Is this song based on personal matters of you and/or Walt Aldridge or was this just an idea that came to one of you?
EP: Well, I brought the idea but it seemed to really hit a chord with Walt. Probably because he had daughters that were just about marrying age at that time. I got the idea and melody a few days after my first daughter Anna was born eighteen (or so) months earlier. But Walt developed much of the verse and he was the one that came up with the surprise revelation of the song being from a father instead of an ex-boyfriend… absolute genius.
JL: When you finished the song, did you have a feeling it could explode on the chart like it did?
EP: Yes. We brought Michael into the writing room and played it for him. I still have the recording of Walt playing and singing it all the way through for the first time. Pretty cool. Michael teared up and he just kept saying it was going to be huge.
JL: How did Heartland come across the song?
EP: Well that’s a very interesting story. The song had a much more difficult time getting cut than we had anticipated. It got passed around Music Row for a couple years in fact. It was one of those songs everybody knew and loved but nobody would take a chance on. I think there were several reasons. Walt had just moved back to Nashville from Alabama, and I was, of course, a nobody. So I think we were kind of no name writers. Walt had had huge success in the eighties and nineties, but it had been a while and it’s just the way it is in that industry… nothing is guaranteed, even for a guy with several hits under his belt.
Also, the song was from the perspective of a guy old enough to have a daughter getting married. As dumb as it sounds, a lot of stars don’t want to sing songs about being that old. So we’d get these awesome holds but it just wouldn’t make the final cut. That happened over and over. My publishers pounded the pavement with that song and it just wouldn’t happen. It was very disheartening.
So one night a couple years later, Walt was performing at a venue in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He played “I Loved Her First” in that performance. These guys came up to Walt afterward and introduced themselves. They said they were wanting to get a label deal in Nashville. They also asked Walt if he’d help them record a demo (Walt owned a small studio in Nashville) and they asked if they could use “I Loved Her First” as their demo. Walt agreed to do the demo session and to let them sing it but was pretty confident he’d never see them again after that night. But a few weeks later they showed up on Walt’s doorstep in Nashville ready to cut the demo. So Walt did as he had promised and they recorded the demo. Again, they parted ways. A few months later Walt got a call from Mike Borchetta of Lofton Creek Records. Mike told Walt he had signed this band Heartland and he wanted to release “I Loved Her First” as the single. So we gave them clearance and the rest is history. The song lit up the phones every time it was played.
Mike Borchetta was an old radio guy and he knew how to work those station managers. I’ve heard a lot of people say that “I Loved Her First” was one of the last true #1 songs. That is to say it was a song that the listeners drove up the charts by call-ins. Lofton Creek didn’t have the funds to do it any other way. Mike and his wife just got on the phones and begged station after station to play the song. All it took was one spin.
JL: What was it like hearing your song on the radio for the first time?
EP: It was unreal.
JL: When did you realize that “I Loved Her First” was going to be a major success?
EP: Well, when it was first released, my publisher said he expected a top 40 with it. I thought that was great. Then when it hit 40 and kept going we all set our sights on top 20, then top 10. But it just kept going and going. Kind of like Seabiscuit up through the bigger horses. That last week was excruciating though. When it finally hit #1, it was really strange. Like I was standing on top of the world. So validating.
JL: When you saw that your song went to number one on the Billboard chart, what was the biggest change it brought your way?
EP: Well, I had an open door to any writer I wanted to write with. That was nice. And it definitely gave me confidence. But it also created a new pressure to live up to that song. I put pressure on myself. But eventually, I realized there’s just no living up to that experience. It was a once in a lifetime kind of thing… the way it all went down. It was the Cinderella story that can never quite be duplicated.
JL: Would you be content with your songwriting career being remembered for “I Loved Her First”?
EP: Sure. Most writers never get that experience. It’s a great thing to be known for. I mean, it could have been “The Macarena” or some silly hit like that (laughs). I’ll forever be grateful to Heartland, Lofton Creek Records, and especially Walt.
JL: Any additional comments (if any)
EP: Thanks for the trip down memory lane 🙂
*Image courtesy of Elliott Park’s Facebook page*