Edwin McCain: Off his label and on the road on his terms

South Carolina singer-songwriter Edwin McCain experienced huge mainstream pop music success with a pair of heartfelt late 1990s ballads, “I’ll Be” and “I Could Not Ask for More.”

“I’ll Be,” a song from McCain’s 1997 album, “Misguided Roses,” remains perennially popular, especially at weddings.

“Every year the song becomes new again,” he says. “It’s so crazy to be that lucky, to have a song that just keeps going and going and going.”

McCain wrote “I’ll Be” and most of his other songs. Pop tunesmith Diane Warren, however, composed “I Could Not Ask for More.” Offered the song by his record company, Atlantic, McCain initially rejected it. He didn’t even know who Warren was.

Warren’s emotion-packed hits include Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” and “If You Asked Me To,” Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart,” Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live.”

“But I was like, ‘Who’s Diane Warren?’” McCain recalls. “‘You don’t know who Diane Warren is?’ ‘No.’ ‘She’s the biggest hit songwriter on Earth.’ ‘Wow, tell her thanks, but no thanks. I’ve got lots of my own songs.’”

But Atlantic Records wasn’t going to let the chance for another hit sung by McCain slip.

“They came back and said, ‘OK, we’ll pay you to sing it for a soundtrack.’ So we cut it and I didn’t think anything else about it.’”

After a single radio station played the Warren-penned “I Could Not Ask for More,” the song quickly spread.

“Somebody put it on the air and it just took off,” McCain says. “And then Atlantic put it on my record and released it. At the time, I felt like I’d been duped. But they knew better than I did. It’s great, because it’s another song people know me by.”

In the present, McCain is glad that he recorded “I Could Not Ask for More,” but back then he refused to record another of Warren’s compositions.

“I kept telling her, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult, it’s just that I’m a songwriter, and I have a different view of what I want to play at my shows. It’s not this.’”

“She’s a huge name,” he explains these dozen or so years later, “but at that point in my life and career, I had hit the wall with the whole pop music and the big record industry thing. It was so much about image and building this persona. I just didn’t have that in me.”

McCain asked for and received a release from his Atlantic Records contract.

“I went happily back to playing my acoustic songs,” he says. “It’s been great ever since. For me, it was really about deciding to be happy. There’s a difference between making financial decisions and making the decision to be honest with what you love.

“I don’t have deadlines. I don’t force myself to write about things that I don’t care about. Most everything is a story from my life. And I have time to live my life long enough to find something anecdotal that makes sense in a song or is just another part of the story.”

Now a 43-year-old father of three young children, McCain and his family live in his hometown of Greenville. Enjoying time at home, he no longer performs more than 300 shows a year.

“We go out for long weekends,” he says. “We don’t find ourselves in that month-on-the-road kind of vibe.”

His songs have changed, too.

“In my 20s, I wrote with these idealistic, change-the-world themes. Now I write songs about the little handprint that my 4-year-old daughter left on the Sheetrock. I find the poetry in the little stuff now. I think it’s a part of growing up. You realize the things that you’re truly capable of and find the joy in that.”