Going Against The Grain, McGraw Fulfills His Vision

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

It's a testament to his stature as an artist that Tim McGraw was able to buck country- music protocol and use his own band to record the new album "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors," due Nov. 26 on Curb Records. (Who are the Dancehall Doctors? Click here to meet the members of the band.)

Nashville's famed Music Row is home to some of the world's best session musicians, and the standard mode of operation for country artists is to record with those players, then have a touring band recreate their licks on the road.

For McGraw, using his own band was a means of fulfilling his artistic vision. "I've always wanted to do it, and I had time to do it," he says of the experience, which not only generated the new album but also a companion book, "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors: This Is Ours," published this month by Simon & Schuster. (A book on fatherhood that McGraw wrote is due next year from the same publisher.)

"I wanted to do something different," McGraw says. "I have a lot of great guys in my band. They take the records we've made over the years and put a lot of creativity into what they come up with live [and] really enhance that. I kind of wanted to reverse that and take everything off the stage and all the energy and creativity that goes on in our live show and put that in our record. I'm real proud of it."

McGraw has become one of country music's most consistent hitmakers. Since debuting in June 1992, he has amassed 28 top-10 country singles, including 17 No. 1 hits. "Please Remember Me," "I Like It, I Love It," "My Next Thirty Years," and "Something Like That" each spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart; "Just to See You Smile" spent six weeks at the summit. His last album, the 2001 release "Set This Circus Down," extended his consecutive string of multi-platinum sellers to six by moving 2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. His best-selling album is the 1994 release Not a Moment Too Soon, which has sold 5.7 million copies.

Thanks to that track record, McGraw has earned the right to record with his road band. "I'm thrilled that Tim recorded with his band," Curb chairman Mike Curb says. "It gives the entire album a very cohesive feel. It's an incredible piece of work with a great energy that can only be achieved when you've worked together as long as they have."

The first step in achieving his musical vision was finding the perfect place to record. McGraw says, "I wanted to get away and not be distracted. I wanted to keep it just me and the guys."

He considered a variety of locales -- including France, Italy, Spain, and the Bahamas -- but chose Allaire Studios in New York's Catskill Mountains. "It was a big, U-shaped, wooden farmhouse complex that had huge rooms, wooden floors, and big windows," he says of the 1920s retreat. "It had 150 vintage guitars, all kinds of things. It had a real warm sound."

He had the place decorated with antiques, Oriental rugs, and other items to create an inviting atmosphere, where McGraw co-produced the record with longtime producer Byron Gallimore and his band leader, Darran Smith, a first-time producer. Smith says, "We were trying to capture that live feeling, that live edge, and still make it a good, solid, commercial record."

The result is an album marked by the excellent song selection McGraw has built a solid career on, as well as a new, more accessible vocal feel. "There's a whole lot of feeling on this record," he says. "The guys really have an honest way of playing it and brought out a real honesty in the way I sing. You are always looking for a way to not think about it and just to sing -- that's what you try to do as an artist. On this record I did 15 or 16 vocals in four days because it was so easy to go in there and sing to these tracks. I felt so able to just open my mouth and sing."

McGraw and the band have already been performing some of the new songs. "We actually went out on a few shows and got to play our own licks," Smith says. "For years, we've been learning everybody else's licks that played [on previous albums]. This just gave us a new confidence, and hearing it on the radio for the first time, it's awesome."

In addition to the Dancehall Doctors (the name comes from a Conway Twitty song), McGraw has some impressive guests on the new project. Husky-voiced chanteuse Kim Carnes joins him on "Comfort Me" and a cover of the Elton John hit "Tiny Dancer."

Two of McGraw's heroes -- Eagles' Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit -- contribute vocals to "Illegal." McGraw originally chose the song for a band he was producing called Kattl. Nothing ever happened with the group, but McGraw held on to some of the tunes. When he decided to put "Illegal" on the new record, he called Henley and enlisted his help.

The first single from the album, "Red Rag Top," which is at No. 10 on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, stirred controversy because of its reference to abortion. McGraw says he did not anticipate resistance at radio because the song, written by Jason White, "doesn't get on a soapbox issue in any way. I don't think the song compromises your beliefs or compromises your integrity on how you feel either way on the subject. The song is a song about life [and] as an artist, you live to find a story that is told so beautifully and with so much pain and regret at the same time. So, it never crossed my mind not to do this song.

"I'm a storyteller, and I'm just telling a story," he continues. "It's an honest story. You cannot tell a story and take a part out of the story that you don't really like. You can't take things away just because there may be something that just doesn't feel good. Not everything is pretty."

As for future singles, McGraw sees "She's My Kind of Rain," penned by Robin Lerner and Tommy Lee James, as an obvious choice. "That's the best record we've ever made -- sonically and lyrically. The lyrics are so cool, and the melody has an off beat to it."

Another track on "Dancehall Doctors," "Sing Me Home," written by Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, became the title of McGraw's upcoming NBC-TV special. The show was filmed in his hometown of Start, La., which he describes as a little community with a cotton gin, a church, and a school. The special will air Nov. 27. Additionally, a documentary on McGraw will be screened Nov. 25 in movie theaters in 20 U.S. cities, with country radio stations in each market staging ticket giveaways.

Excerpted from the Nov. 23, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.

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