Happy and sober, Tim McGraw enjoying newfound 'Freedom'
Posted February 4, 2013
NASHVILLE - It's no coincidence that Tim McGraw's new album opens and closes with highway songs.
"There's a sense of acceleration on this record, a sense of freedom," the country singer says of Two Lanes of Freedom, out Tuesday. "I feel energized, like I'm at the cusp of my career."
Even though McGraw, 45, released his first album 20 years ago this April, Two Lanes of Freedom marks a new start.
It's McGraw's first album for Big Machine Records, recorded and released after years of disputes and legal wrangling with his previous label, Curb Records. For once, the different parts of the singer's life are firing on all cylinders: He's excited about his partnership with Big Machine; he's playing concerts in Las Vegas with his wife of 16 years, Faith Hill; and he's nearly five years sober.
During a day spent in a photography studio, McGraw practically wears his newfound contentment and independence on the sleeve of his tight black shirt. "I feel like I'm starting to figure out what it is that I do," he says, sounding excited, almost playful. "As an artist, I feel like I've grown more musically over the last year and a half than I have in my entire career."
With its wide-open melody and hair-in-the-breeze ambience, Two Lanes of Freedom's title track was recorded during the first session for the album and sets the tone for the music that follows.
"It was a fist-pump song in the studio," McGraw says. "When we finished laying the track down, everyone knew that we had something really cool. It became the song we built everything around."
McGraw teased his new music last summer with Truck Yeah, a single with heavy rock guitar riffs that coincided with a tour of stadiums with Kenny Chesney. The track, which peaked at No. 10 on USA TODAY's country airplay chart, polarized some listeners, but "it completely achieved the goal of screaming, 'New Tim McGraw song, new Tim McGraw album, new Tim McGraw energy,' " says Big Machine label head Scott Borchetta. "We took that as a total success."
Current single One of Those Nights looks to be an even bigger success. Now No. 5 on the country chart, it has sold 307,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"It's got more staying power," says Marci Braun, music director at Chicago country station WUSN-FM. "It's down the middle of the road, but it sticks out because it's got a cool groove."
The album offers plenty more to get radio programmers revved up, including the album-closing Highway Don't Care, a duet with Taylor Swift that also features guitar work from Keith Urban.
When McGraw heard the song, he says he knew instantly that he wanted Swift, who launched her career in 2006 with a single called Tim McGraw, to sing the female part.
"It was perfect for us to sing together, because it wasn't this love-interest song from her point of view," he says. "I didn't want to do that."
McGraw says he's been looking for a way to get Urban on one of his records for a long time: "He's one of the most talented guys we have in our genre."
The three-for-all is guaranteed single material down the line, perhaps as soon as One of Those Nights has finished its run on radio. "It's going to blow people's minds," Borchetta says. "It's going to be one of the biggest singles of the year."
The emotional crux of the album, though, is Book of John, in which a son learns about his father's life through a scrapbook he left behind.
"I don't have a deep well of father-son relationship knowledge," McGraw says. He grew up with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather and didn't get to know his biological father, major-league baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, until he was an adult. Now, he's the father of three daughters.
"That song really had an impact on me because of that. It was a way for me to explore that emotionally. Even now when I sing it, I don't get all the way through it sometimes. If I let myself, I can really get too emotional in it."
He says he doesn't have anything like a "Book of Tug" but did inherit several keepsakes from his father, who died in 2004: his ring and trophy from the 1980 World Series and a framed presentation of all Tug's baseball cards that now hangs in his house. "We got to be friends, for sure, but I didn't know him until later in life," McGraw says. "We never really got close to each other."
McGraw's deal with Big Machine has a father-son aspect to it, as well: Scott Borchetta's father, Mike Borchetta, brought McGraw to Curb Records, where the singer signed his first record deal in 1992.
"I remember so clearly my dad being excited because he had signed Tug McGraw's son, because he was such a baseball fanatic," Scott Borchetta says. "It's awesome for us to be able to continue that story."
Continuing the story might not have been a possibility if McGraw hadn't stopped drinking five years ago this May. "I was probably a high-level, functioning drinker," says McGraw. Occasionally, there was more than alcohol. "I had my moments where I experimented with things, but nothing crazy."
In the past, McGraw would have been drinking when he went in the studio to record or took the stage for a concert.
"I always had at least a drink or two before I went on stage, and sometimes more," he says. "So there were times when I was drunk, for sure. When you're sort of a rock star, I guess you feel like that's part of the program."
Byron Gallimore, who produced Two Lanes of Freedom and has worked on all 12 of McGraw's studio albums, says the singer's drinking never became an issue while recording.
"If Tim was that far along, he was able to hide it pretty well," Gallimore says. "It didn't affect the music, and it didn't affect his performances."
But McGraw says the drinking did affect his life, as well as his marriage to Hill. "I think she got worried that I was going to keep going further and further down the wrong road," he says.
Sobering up also allowed McGraw to be more engaged in his career, he says. And there's a lot to engage with at the moment.
"He's everywhere right now," Braun says. "I can see where he says it's like Part 2 or a new start for him. It has definitely rejuvenated him, from what I've seen."
In addition to the album, McGraw is halfway through a 10-week set of shows with Hill at The Venetian in Las Vegas that runs through April.
"Performing together is something Faith and I enjoy doing, and we don't get to do it that often," he says. The singers' daughters range in age from 11 to 15, so mounting a tour together "just became impossible with family life and teenage daughters, cheerleading practice and basketball practice, all the things that come along with life. It became hard for us to gather and pack up the whole family to go on tour."
But McGraw will launch a full-scale tour in May, with Brantley Gilbert and Love and Theft as supporting acts. In April, he'll also tape a two-hour, multiple-artist concert special called ACM Presents: Tim McGraw's Superstar Summer Night, which will air this summer on CBS.
McGraw credits the relationship he has with Big Machine for allowing him to effectively coordinate a wide-reaching promotional effort.
"It's a product of being able to work together as a team," he says. "It's been tough to plan my life without knowing what's going on with my work. All those things are so much better now."
McGraw won't discuss specifics of the 19 years he spent at Curb, because some legal issues are still open. And both he and Borchetta decline to specify his new contract's duration - one of the sticking points with his previous label.
"It's not long, I can tell you that," McGraw says. The Big Machine deal also gives McGraw ownership of his recordings, "which was very important to me."
While the new contract covers a set number of albums, "it's as long as he wants it to be," Borchetta says. "If he says he's unhappy in a year, I don't need an unhappy Tim McGraw. I'm having too much fun with the happy Tim McGraw."
McGraw and Borchetta both expect the relationship to produce a steadier stream of albums, perhaps one every 18 to 20 months. But McGraw hasn't really looked that far down the road yet.
"I look forward to getting back into the studio and making another record," he says. "But more important for me is feeling like I'm progressing as an artist, feeling like I'm making better music every time I go into the studio.
"If I ever get to the point where I don't feel like I could make a better record the next time, or don't think that I'm progressing, or don't think that I'm getting better with touring, I don't want to do it anymore."
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