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Coming home for a network TV special, Tim McGraw reconnects with his personal roots - and ponders the flap caused by a controversial new single

Story by Wendy Newcomer

With a hot new album, a blissful marriage to Faith Hill and a trio of healthy daughters, Tim McGraw is one happy man.

So why does he rarely smile in pictures?

"I don't know," he muses, breaking out in the wide grin you rarely see photographed. "I feel cheesy, I guess, when I smile. I'm supposed to be 'the brooding artist,' aren't I? It's the Aqua Velva thing to do."

Yet when he recently went home to Start, La., to film his first-ever TV special, Sing Me Home, Tim couldn't help but show his pearly whites. The concert, filmed in an old cotton gin in the town he once called home, was the culmination of all his childhood dreams. Tim left Start a dreamer and returned a superstar. But even a superstar knows there's no place like home.

"The community I grew up in has a groundedness and a sense of humility, of helping people out," he says proudly. "Not only did I think it was a great community, but it was considered great throughout the area." As soon as he hit the city limits, Tim couldn't wait to go to one of his favorite places - his Aunt Barbara's home.

"That's where Faith and I got married," he recalls. "We spent the night over there with the kids and showed them the spot where we got married out in the backyard. We showed them where I used to play and ride bicycles. Then Faith and I took a motorcycle ride and checked out the places I grew up and where I used to ride horses and stuff like that. To me, that was the really special part of being down there and being able to do this TV show.

"We go there for my annual Swampstock concert," adds Tim, "but we've never had the opportunity to just ride around and check things out. I always love doing that when we're back in Mississippi, visiting Faith's parents. So to do that here was one of the real enjoyable things of the TV special experience."

As the cameras rolled during the concert, Tim was struck by how far he had come since leaving. "It was weird," he admits. "I could see where I went to school, and the train tracks and the silos. I could see everything while I was singing.

"And it was really cool to be onstage, look out in the crowd and see all those people. I knew a bunch of them. When I got down close to the front of the stage, I started recognizing people from third grade!"

But in third grade, Tim wasn't dreaming of the stage. "I played sports all the time," he remembers. "It was a big passion of mine. I was focused on ball and girls, just like every other young boy. But I wanted to do something. I just didn't quite know what it was.

"I always loved music. As I got older I became more passionate about listening to records and really hearing the music."

Six multiplatinum albums and 17 No. 1 singles later, millions of Tim's fans are hearing his music. When he recently released the first single, "Red Ragtop," from his latest album, Tim McGraw And The Dancehall Doctors, no one could have predicted the commotion that would surround it - least of all, Tim.

The song tells the story of a young couple who chooses not to have the baby they conceive after a night of passion. The abortion implied in the lyrics caused an uproar among some radio programmers, who refused to play the song.

"I didn't think it would be this controversial," confesses Tim. "It doesn't get on a soap box and preach about anything. I don't care what side of the [abortion] issue you fall on - the lyrics don't jeopardize your integrity or your feelings on the subject. It's just a great song that tells a story. To me, singing a song that unsettles you a little bit - no matter what it's about - is the purpose of music. The purpose of great music is to move you."

Tim's only had the chance to perform "Red Ragtop" live a few times because he's constantly been on the move. He and Faith and their daughters - Gracie, 5; Maggie, 4; and Audrey, 1 - just returned from a quick European press tour promoting Faith's new album.

"It was great," explains Tim. "We were in London the whole time. The girls really enjoyed it. We got to do a lot of sightseeing. The girls can tell you all about Henry VIII - and his wives!" adds Tim, laughing. "They know the stories better than we do.

"It's always fun to travel with the girls, especially now that they're getting old enough to appreciate it. They love to see things and to learn about them. In fact, in London they had a tutor in the afternoons. They were away on field trips all the time, and Faith and I went with them when we could."

While Faith worked and the girls learned, Tim took advantage of the picturesque London location and shot a video for a new song called "She's My Kind Of Rain." "It's the best-sounding song we've ever recorded," he declares, "and probably my favorite."

But will it be the follow-up single to "Red Ragtop"?

Find out in the current 12/10/02 "Newsstand Issue" on sale now!