Tim McGraw Billboard Cover Jan. 2012

Tim McGraw Billboard Cover 2013

New year, new label, new album -- McGraw charges back with "Two Lanes of Freedom."

Seated inconspicuously in a corner booth at Nashville's Sportsman's Grill less than a week before Christmas, Tim McGraw seems to have found a little peace on earth.

Professionally, at least (though he doesn't make that distinction), McGraw says that "the last five or six years have probably been the toughest years of my life." After an acrimonious split from Curb Records, his label home for the first 20 years of his career, McGraw will release his first record on Big Machine on Feb. 5, Two Lanes of Freedom. The title comes from an anthemic track on the record, and freedom-and acceleration-are prevailing themes on a set that finds McGraw and longtime producer Byron Gallimore delivering a sonically ambitious collection of songs that is equal parts fun, romance and big-picture vignettes.

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The long and exhaustively covered legal wrangling between McGraw and Curb hit a milestone last September when the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in Nashville upheld an earlier ruling that denied Curb Records a preliminary injunction to prevent McGraw from signing with another record company. While certain legal issues are still to be determined regarding breach-of-contract suits and countersuits, Team McGraw is looking forward, though McGraw admits the scars of the split are still fresh. For example, he uses the term "cock-blocked" in describing his final years with the label, as he watched a bevy of young male country artists find success on a stylistic bedrock in many ways pioneered by McGraw, who was burning to take his music to new heights.


"They hurt my career," he says of his previous label. "I felt like I was at the top of my game, and to not be able to get to the places I wanted to be ... it was really hard to sit back, with me being competitive. Nothing against any other artists-I love success for anybody. I always say, 'I want everybody to do great. I just want to do better.' Just watching all the things that are going on and to have to sit on the sidelines, it's been tough."


This pre-holiday conversation doesn't look back for long, but rather teems with optimism from McGraw about what this new era will hold. "It's like I put it in a different gear now," he says. "I really feel like I'm only about 35% into my career. There's so much more ahead of me, musically and everything else. It feels like the clouds have parted and now I can find my lane and press the gas."


Consider gas pressed. The album, produced by McGraw and Gallimore, is loaded with the hallmarks of the pair's past successes while venturing into new sonic territory. McGraw's musical instincts have proved savvy. He's charted 68 hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs tally, including 24 No. 1s. He has had 13 No. 1s on Top Country Albums and has sold 41 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, eighth-most among all acts in the SoundScan era.


Such a track record made McGraw an appealing prospect as a free agent. "The marketplace was very open to Tim," says Coran Capshaw, McGraw's manager since 2009 and founder/owner of Red Light Management. "Tim was looking for a place he felt truly would be his partner, and the foundation of this business relationship [with Big Machine] is a partnership."


Big Machine head Scott Borchetta "leads a tight, smart, efficient, entrepreneurial operation," Capshaw says. "As we were approaching the launch of this album, we learned a lot about the strength of the team he has assembled over there. And great relationships at country radio are paramount to Tim, and Big Machine really offers that."


For his part, Borchetta says McGraw is perfectly positioned for another career uptick. "Here's a guy who's come through everything he's had to deal with who has an open lane, no pun on the title of Two Lanes of Freedom," he says. "The fans are going to absolutely freak out. He's fully engaged, and there's a ton of great music and live energy left in Tim McGraw, so it's a fantastic time to be working with him. There's times I sit back and think, 'Wow, Tim McGraw's on Big Machine. How cool is that?'"


Asked what was appealing about Big Machine and Borchetta's team, McGraw doesn't hesitate. "It's not a long answer," he says. "I wanted to go someplace where there's a freshness and energy, and Scott's got that energy. Anything's possible, there's no rules, and I feel like I made my career that way. Had I known the rules, I wouldn't make records the way I make records. I've got all the freedom I want. It's a partnership."