The Second Act: How Tim McGraw’s Past is Shaping His Future
Tim Mcgraw says his new album 'Sundown Heaven Town' drives forward by borrowing from his 22-year-old catalog. Whiffs of hits like 'Red Ragtop,' 'Just to See You Smile,' 'Where the Green Grass Grows' and 'Angry All the Time' seep through the speakers during songs like 'City Lights,' 'Shotgun Rider' and 'Diamond Rings and Old Bar Stools.' Beyond that, his life -- the moments and experiences that took him from an unheard of singer from Start, La. to one of the biggest stages in America -- is weaved in and out of the 13 songs on the standard edition album.
His agent Rod Essig tells Taste of Country that things really exploded for McGraw with the release of 'Don't Take the Girl' in 1994. It's one of his favorite McGraw songs.
“I love that because I think that’s where the career really started," Essig says. "‘Indian Outlaw’ was before that but I think ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ really set him apart.”
We’d be there watching the football games and the electricity would go off. And he’d be like ‘Oh, I must have forgot to pay the electric bill this month.
Sure, the movies ('Friday Night Lights,' 'The Blind Side') took him to a new level. And 'Live Like You Were Dying' is the song everyone agrees is his all-time greatest. But it was this ballad that pitched his career trajectory to a new angle.
Big Machine Label Group President Scott Borchetta agrees. McGraw's boss recalls his first Tim McGraw experience. It was an industry event in 1994. "He did ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ on the New Faces show," Borchetta, then working for a competing label, says. "It stopped the room and it’s like ‘Oh my God. We’re gonna have to deal with this guy.'”
Go back even further to truly appreciate how far he's come. Dean Brown first met McGraw in 1992, three years after the future superstar moved to Nashville. The Dancehall Doctor multi-instrumentalist remembers those early days well -- the two would frequently gather at McGraw's apartment and play Madden NFL on Sega Genesis, or watch television.
"We’d be there watching the football games and the electricity would go off," Brown tells Taste of Country. "And he’d be like ‘Oh, I must have forgot to pay the electric bill this month.'”
"Bring a fire log," is how many phone conversations would end. McGraw didn't worry about the future, Brown says. He was too busy taking care of the present. Yet he had this confidence about him that made everyone feel like it'd all work out.
Further, further ... go back further to find one unfamiliar name that truly planted the seeds of superstardom for McGraw.
"There was a country singer growing up," McGraw says an hour or so past sunrise on a chilly Tennessee September morning. He's dressed in fitted denim pants the color of Florida sand, and a dark baseball cap that blends seamlessly into the charcoal beard that's sprouted over the last two weeks.
"My mom worked at a hotel bar. A place called the Tiffin Inn, and Rusty Nail was the lounge that went along with it. And there was a guy named James Pastell who was a country singer where I grew up that I used to hear a lot of and used to listen his records a lot.”
The 2015 Taste of Country Music Festival headliner didn't go to any festivals growing up. There weren't many nearby, plus they didn't have the money for tickets. His first concert was Ted Nugent's Wango Tango Tour, but more traditional stars like Elvis Presley, the Eagles and George Strait had a greater hand in molding his stage act.
“I would sing a George Strait song when I was playing in clubs and I would try to sing every note as close to him as I could," he remembers. "You always think you’re sounding like somebody and then you hear yourself back and go ‘I sound nothing like who I thought I sounded like, I just sound like me.'"
McGraw's 'Sundown Heaven Town' album is now available, featuring 13 songs plus five more if you spring for the deluxe edition. 'Meanwhile Back at Mama's' and 'Shotgun Rider' are two fine representatives of the others. 'Lookin' for That Girl' is an odd duck, but it's not alone in being a right turn on a counter-clockwise project. 'Portland, Maine' is another. So is 'I'm Feelin' You.'
“I certainly don’t want to always do what’s expected of me as an artist," McGraw tells Taste of Country. "I don’t think that’s how you can be around for 20 years.”
'Meanwhile ... ' was hardly a risk. The song felt like a smash four bars into it he told Taste of Country Nights radio. It paints a picture of the idealized homelife, which is ironic given how McGraw grew up. His childhood was hardly ideal, but the singer says that's why he loves the song.
“Either you have a memory or a connection to that bucolic, sort of idealized childhood, or home that you grew up in or you wanna have it,” he says.
He talked with Taste of Country several times over the span of a few weeks this summer. In conversation, his focus is remarkable. It's difficult to disrupt his even-keel delivery, but one always senses a fire that's burning just below the surface of every conversation. He's guarded when talking about the details of his personal life, but politely guarded. It's the difference between a bouncer at a high-end nightclub and a meathead at the local honkytonk. There are limits to what he'll share and he'll let you know with little more than a few purposeful words and maybe the tightening of the skin holding it all together.
"He’s totally in control of his own career," Essig says. "He makes every decision and that’s kind of unique to a lot of my clients to be that involved. And he is that involved.”
The two have worked together since the very beginning, enjoying all the No. 1 singles and albums, the movies, the awards, the personal successes -- but also navigating the obstacles. The transition from Curb to Big Machine was not a smooth one. In addition to the high profile legal battle, he let go of half of his live band. Brown, bandleader and steel guitarist Denny Hemingson and banjo player Bob Minner are the survivors. All three originals understood why changes were made but still admit to missing their friends. It wasn't easy for anyone, but the new beginning brought relief instead of anxiety.
I won’t be on stage at 95. I don’t know that I’ll ever say that I’ll retire but I certainly won’t be doing it forever.
"I think it was a deep breath," Essig says. "It was a matter that he had been at Curb for so long and I think at that point they were slowing down and cutting back where Scott Borchetta ... everything is just balls out. Let’s go for it.”
Borchetta appreciates being a part of McGraw's second album on Big Machine in a way he couldn't the first.
“The previous album, a lot of the work had already been done," he says."There were a lot of songs that he already had in his purview that he was interested in cutting ... So a lot of the record, by the time we got the deal done, was finished for ‘Two Lanes of Freedom.’”
“With this record I was in from the beginning, so he started sending me songs over a year ago.”
It's hard to argue that both records aren't amongst his best since 'Live Like You Were Dying.' A breath of fresh air practically hits you in the face upon cutting open the CD case. McGraw is continually taking chances without worrying what critics or even fans will think.
“I’m gonna push myself further, and I’m gonna stretch myself out as far as I can," he says. "I think as an artist that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Producer Byron Gallimore will also push, "but he also knows when to tell me when we’ve gone a little too far or we need to reign it in a little bit without adjusting the artistic integrity of what we’re trying to do.”
It's remarkable that both Hemingson and Brown called 'Shotgun Rider' one of their favorite McGraw songs of all time, but perhaps fitting given where the singer is at this point in his career.
“It feels like ‘Just to See You Smile’ in that same kind of flowing, classic country McGraw song," Brown says as the others nod in agreement. 'Live Like You Were Dying' is still the career song, no one disputes this. But for a singer who is realistically on the back end of his career -- how far along is certainly something McGraw will dispute -- it may be appropriate that he's become more nostalgic in many ways. That's what men do when they age and start watching their kids prepare for college.
But don't call him old yet. "You look at how good of shape he’s in. And how much he cares about all of this," Borchetta says when asked what makes Tim McGraw, well ... Tim McGraw. "That’s a commitment. He lives this. And he’s all about his art. The fact that he is still relevant 20-plus years into it is not by accident. It takes a heck of a lot of work to do this, and a lot of vision and understanding what’s going on culturally. Very few people have a career like this.”
How much longer does he have? He's 47 now so it's a fair question to ask if done without insinuating anything. Strait just retired from the road at age 61. Others have done it sooner while Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn seem willing to die on stage.
"I won't be on stage at 95," he says with emphasis. "I don't know that I'll ever say that I'll retire but I certainly won't be doing it forever."
How Well Do You Know Tim McGraw?