Tim McGraw, Start Your Engine

Originally published in our February 18, 2013, issue featuring Tim on the cover.

One of the unique traits that defines country music and separates it from all other genres is the accessibility and everyman—or everywoman—quality of its personalities. But when sitting across a table from Tim McGraw, it’s hard not to be aware of his innate star power. Dressed to the nines for a photo shoot in a studio south of downtown Nashville, trademark black cowboy hat atop his head, and looking tan and supernaturally fit, Tim exudes a charisma unlike many of his peers. 

Yet he is still welcoming and personable, happy to shoot the breeze about his father, legendary late Major League Baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, and how, in the early 1990s, Tim once spent a few days bar-hopping while snowbound in Philadelphia.   

These days, however, Tim doesn’t drink. In fact, his only vice appears to be the M&M’s he is eating one after another as he settles in to talk about his new album, Two Lanes of Freedom. Opening with the atmospheric title track and closing with another road song, the mesmerizing “Highway Don’t Care,” a duet with Taylor Swift, his labelmate since signing with Big Machine Records last May, his first album for the label is a decisive statement from Tim.

“It felt like it was a watershed album for me. It was going to plant a flag at a point in my career,” Tim says, maintaining a confident eye contact as he speaks. “I’m not a big guy for looking back, but this record looks back and gathers up all the stuff I’ve really enjoyed about the music that I’ve made. It’s like seeing a car come down the road, and you hear it, and it’s loud coming toward you, and then it goes by, and you’re watching it leave as it goes ahhh . . . That’s what this record does. It brings all that together.”

In other words, it’s a journey, a musical road trip. And the car metaphor is prevalent throughout the album, bookended by those two highway songs. Tim says he planned Two Lanes of Freedom precisely that way.  

“I wanted it to open and end that way for sure,” he explains. “It’s almost like you’re coming into town and going out of town. And the title track set the tone for the whole album. We cut it on the first night. I always felt this sort of hazy, summery, dreamy thing with that song. It has an energy, and drive, and freshness.”

That fresh quality is due in part to the creative freedom Tim now relishes at Big Machine. His relationship with his previous label didn’t exactly end well and the parties are still engaged in some legal proceedings. But Tim is happy to look ahead, even while acknowledging the ongoing drama with his old camp.

“It’s never going to end, probably. But all I can do is make the best music I can make and give it to the world,” he says. “That’s another reason that this music has a freshness to it—because I knew I would be in control of it. I think that’s the cathartic relief that I have, knowing that now I can choose what I do with my music.”

He’s clearly in the driver’s seat.

“Absolutely,” he confirms. “In the driver’s seat, shifting gears and pulling onto the pavement.”

Or rather, peeling out. With Two Lanes of Freedom, Tim burned rubber in the studio, crafting arguably his most solid project to date. While “Truck Yeah” may have felt more like a novelty than a bold proclamation of “I’m back!” the other 10 tracks (15 total on the “Accelerated Deluxe” edition) find Tim in top form. Nostalgic single “One of Those Nights” carries on the cinematic quality of “Two Lanes of Freedom,” “Nashville Without You” is a clever Music City-set love song, and “Friend of a Friend”—Tim’s favorite from the album—is a swirling recollection of the one that got away.

Recently, the artist gave the album a final once-over and was pleasantly surprised by what he heard.

“I was in my car and had to do something, and I thought, ‘OK, let me give it a run-through.’ I was like, ‘I like that song, and that song, and that can be a single,’” he says excitedly. 

The overdid-it-in-Mexico track “Mexicoma” and “Highway Don’t Care” are two potential releases for radio. The former was an instant crowd favorite when Tim debuted the song during the Brothers of the Sun Tour with Kenny Chesney last summer, while the latter features Keith Urban on guitar and Taylor on vocals—essentially bringing things full circle for Tay and Tim. After all, it was Taylor’s ode “Tim McGraw” that launched her career. Tim agrees the connection is almost karmic. 

“Very much so,” he says. “I wanted to sing with Taylor. I think she’s really a special artist, in all of music, not just our genre. She’s an artist who really knows what she wants and how she wants to present her music. She has no identity crisis about who she is, and I love that.”

Just don’t suggest that younger artists like Taylor should consider Tim a country elder.

“I don’t feel like an elder statesmen. I just feel like I’m making the best music of my career,” he says. “I really feel like I’m just getting started. Musically, I feel like I’m starting to understand what it is that I do and how I do what I do. I don’t think I’ll ever fully figure it out, and if I do feel that way, then it’s probably time to quit.”

Instead, Tim uses yet another car metaphor—his tour is even sponsored by Pennzoil—to describe Two Lanes of Freedom. “I feel like I’ve shifted gears and pressed the gas a little bit. It feels like a bigger world’s opened up to me.”

His career certainly landed on foreign soil in December when he and wife Faith Hill began their Soul2Soul Las Vegas showroom residency at The Venetian. 

Fans have been rightly dazzled by the husband-and-wife showcase, but no one has appreciated the experience, which runs through April, more than its male co-star.

“I get to sing with the best singer in the world—or I have to sing with the best singer in the world. I don’t know how to say it,” Tim says of performing with Faith. “I’m a fan of hers, big-time. To be able to stand there and watch
her sing from the side of the stage, never does it not surprise me how good she is. Because I know her as my wife and my best friend, but her talent is always jaw-dropping to me. As somebody who does the same thing for a living, there is no way I should have this much success when I see somebody who is that talented and I’m married to. I shouldn’t even be doing what she does for a living.”

The Vegas commitment has required Tim and Faith to head west every weekend, leaving behind their daughters, Gracie, Maggie and Audrey.

But from time to time, the girls have joined them at their Venetian home away from home.

“They haven’t been there all at once,” Tim shares, “but I think they’re going to be next weekend. They’re busy, man.”

Just like their father, who finds time to coach daughter Audrey’s softball team. “I don’t know if Audrey is going to play this year, but if she plays, I’ll coach as much as I can,” he says. “I love it. It’s fun.”

Despite their busy schedules, Dad, Mom and the kids make a point to adhere to that time-honored tradition of the family meal. “I would say 98 percent of the time we sit down and eat together, unless we’re out working,” Tim says. “We rarely eat out. We cook pretty regular.”

Tim raves about a dinner Faith just prepared the night before. 

“Faith is a big cook. She made this big meal last night. I got home and she made this French chicken dish—poulet à la crème something,” he says, laughing. “It was chicken with cream, mushrooms and rice pilaf, and all these herbs.”

Cream is a rare indulgence for the toned and trim singer, however. He works out obsessively, especially before a tour. (See sidebar, opposite.) In May, he’ll fire up the Two Lanes of Freedom Tour, with Brantley Gilbert and Love and Theft in tow.

“It’s a big summer tour . . . the full Monty,” Tim says with a smile. “Brantley and Love and Theft are going out with me. That’ll be fun.”

As the photo shoot call time draws near, Tim reflects on the changes in his career over the past few years and, when asked if his progression feels natural, heartily agrees.

“Yeah, it does feel natural. It feels like an exponential step a little bit. It feels like this huge leap forward, musically and emotionally. I think I’ve gotten better,” he states. 

“I’m singing better, I’m being more and more honest on every record. You say, ‘Well, haven’t you been honest before?’ That’s not the point. The point is you become more and more comfortable with yourself. Every artist wants to feel that and they struggle with that: being comfortable. That’s what drives an artist. More than anything.”

And with that, he leans back comfortably in his chair and reaches for one more M&M.

IRON MAN

If this whole country superstar thing doesn’t work out, Tim McGraw can always have a career as a triathlete. Simply put, his workout regimen is sick: two hours a day, every day, sometimes three hours, and increased to six when he’s readying for a tour.

“I work out pretty hard. I do it every day. Sometimes days get away from me, but I don’t plan a day off. Sometimes I’ll go three or four weeks without a day off,” says Tim, who does his regular workout each morning. “We’re up at 6 with the kids for school, so it becomes a routine for me: dropping the kids off, coming back and going straight to the gym.”

“When I’m getting ready for a tour, I’ll do a full-week cycle of three two-hour sessions a day,” he explains. 

It’s a commitment, to be sure, but Tim, a perfectionist, sees it as just a component of his career.

“It’s part of my job. I know everyone can’t run out and do this. They say, ‘Yeah, he’s got time to work out five hours,’” he acknowledges. “But it’s planned as part of my gig.”

 

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