“And if it looks like we were scared to death/ Like a couple of kids just tryin’ to save each other/ You should’ve seen it in color.”

Jamey Johnson’s award-winning 2008 hit “In Color” - a song about looking back at old black and white photos from World War II and beyond - was actually first inspired by old shots shown at Nashville’s annual BMI Awards.

The song’s co-writer, Lee Thomas Miller, brought up the photos in a conversation with Jamey Johnson. A lightbulb immediately went off for both songwriters, and once they finally got in a room together (along with James Otto), a modern country classic was born.

Lee Thomas Miller told the “Story Behind the Song” to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.

Bart Herbison: The Story Behind the Song ... this week (features) one of my favorite humans, Lee Thomas Miller. And it truly is a story song. “In Color.” You wrote it with Jamey Johnson and James Otto. What is the story behind it?

Lee Thomas Miller: They’re a little younger than me, so their grandfathers were in the Korean War. Mine was in Germany in WWII. But that really wasn’t where the idea started. Jamey was having a lot of success as a songwriter. He was having a number one party for, I think, “Ladies Love Country Boys.” My office was close to BMI at the time and I just happened to finish (writing) early. I was going to walk over to Jamey’s number one party. Just the previous year, he had won Song of the Year with “Give It Away.” Whispering Bill (Anderson) was (a co-writer) on that song. We all love Bill. He is one of the last people (still writing songs) from that generation. I walk over to Jamey Johnson who is standing outside BMI, smoking a cigarette, as he tends to do. I just walked up, and we started chatting.

I said, “Man, I thought about you. Have you talked to Bill Anderson? A couple weeks ago at the BMI Awards, my wife and I were sitting there, and on the screens they will run pictures of past BMI Awards. They may be from last year and then they’ll go back and you may see some from the ’60s. You’ll have lots of black and white pictures. You would have Kitty Wells (standing beside) two people in suits. Being the complete country music nerd that I am, I told my wife that I would love to know who all the people are in all those old pictures. “Who are the suits? I wish we were sitting close to Bill Anderson. He’s the only one in this room who could tell us who all of the people in that picture are.” Jamey never says a word. He listens to the whole story and he takes a big drag off his cigarette and says, “There’s your idea, Hoss. Think that’s something, you shoulda’ seen it in color.”

BH: Wow!

LTM: I said, “You may be as good as you think you are. Don’t write that with anybody else. And he said, ‘Call me tomorrow.’”

Of course, it took three months to actually get him pinned down to do it, but he called me on the way in that day and said, “I think we got a good idea.”

I think he had (canceled a write with) James Otto the day before. He got there (to the writing appointment) and he’s looking at his phone. He said, “Do you know James Otto?” I said, “Yeah!” He asked if I cared whether James came in with us because he had canceled the day before. I said, “I don’t care.”

About 15 minutes later, James comes in and by 3 o’clock, we had a song.

BH: I bet Otto was appreciative.

LTM: Fast forward to the next BMI Awards, when (the song) was on the radio at the time. I had told that story a little bit and I see Bill Anderson motioning for me. I go over and he says, “I don’t remember, but am I on that cut?” (laughs). I said, “Well, no, but you were part of the story that got us to it.”

BH: I’ll speak for me: (the song) wasn’t what I expected from Jamey Johnson. Jamey has this larger-than-life personality. A lot of people told me he had this side, a super emotional and sensitive side that he can tap into. I also remember, Lee, a lot of people who weren’t country writers - I was in L.A. a lot at that time - loved that song. I think every songwriter in every genre thought, “That is a song.”

LTM: I think that goes back to the idea. I think it was also the record. It was so unique. It probably took three hours to write. I remember that the bridge said, “That’s the story of my life, right there in black and white.” We had that happening at the end of every verse and one of the last things we did was take that out and put it as the bridge. We worked a lot on the language.

We had a long conversation about how normal people were sent away to war. My grandfather was a tobacco farmer in Kentucky, and he was drafted. He went in as a private and came out as a private. He literally went and saved the world and went back to the tobacco farm. That was the beautiful thing about those who serve. They are just normal people. There was a lot of that conversation. As you do (though), it ultimately needs to be about the girl.

Things have happened since then that are special to me. Five or six years ago, well after the song (was released), we went to the WWII Museum in New Orleans, which is probably the best collection of WWII memorabilia. That made that part of the song that much more real to me. I always say that it won awards and did all those things. That song changed my life and my career. Every now and then, people will tell me that their grandfather put it in his will to have that song played at his funeral.

BH: This was just laying here. (Holds up photo) This was my grandpa, Barton Pullen, who served in arguably the toughest battle in American War History, he was in the Argonne Forrest in WWI. It was just laying there, a black and white picture. For him and for your grandpa, and for everybody that ever served, I thank you. This song summarizes the feeling.