For an artist who laughingly confesses that his first album didn't even go "wood," never mind gold or platinum, Tim McGraw rebounded with a vengeance.

For an artist who laughingly confesses that his first album didn't even go "wood," never mind gold or platinum, Tim McGraw rebounded with a vengeance.

The five albums that followed each debuted, and spent multiple weeks, at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. "Not A Moment Too Soon" spent 29 weeks at the summit in 1994 and also logged two weeks at No. 1 on The Billboard 200. His 1999 album, "A Place in the Sun," bowed at No. 1 simultaneously on both charts.

Needless to say, expectations are high for McGraw's "Set This Circus Down," due April 24 from Curb Records.

McGraw's "about the closest thing we have to a star right now, and we need stars," says WSM-FM Nashville PD Tim Murphy. "He kind of snuck up on people. Nobody was out running around saying he was the next great savior of the format. He got his fan base and grew it slowly. Sometimes when you're not under the glare of expectation, it gives you a little freedom to grow, and that's worked to his advantage."

The Louisiana native's first album, an eponymous effort from 1992, tanked in that it failed to crack the album chart even while notching modest chart activity via the singles "Welcome to the Club" and "Memory Lane." With the 1994 release of "Indian Outlaw," McGraw broke the top-10 with a novelty hit and could have become another one-hit wonder. Instead, he surprised critics by following it with the tear-jerking hit ballad "Don't Take the Girl," and his career continued to escalate.

Along the way, McGraw has racked up a dozen No. 1 singles and collected male vocalist trophies from both the Academy Of Country Music and the Country Music Association (CMA) in 1999 and 2000. The Soul 2 Soul tour with his wife, Faith Hill, was a top-grossing country tour. He has also found success behind the scenes, co-producing labelmates Jo Dee Messina and new act the Clark Family Experience.

Murphy credits McGraw's appeal to his nice-guy persona: "Women want him. Guys want to be him."

Co-producing with studio vets Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, McGraw wraps his affecting country-boy vocals around a stellar collection of songs on "Set This Circus Down." A highlight is Bruce Robison's "Angry All the Time," an aching examination of a marriage on the rocks that features vocals by Hill. She discovered the song and wanted it for her album, but her husband beat her to it.

"I love that one," McGraw enthuses. "We did it live on the tour, sitting in old chairs with just little spotlights on us. The whole stage was black, and I played acoustic guitar. We thought it was kind of cool, since we've never done a song in that direction."

"Set This Circus Down" also features the reflective first single, "Grown Men Don't Cry," currently at No. 11 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart after just three weeks; the shimmering, picturesque "Telluride"; the uptempo "Unbroken," which McGraw describes as having "some meat to it"; and "Angel Boy," a Danny Orton-penned ode to redemption and hope.

"This album blends some of the hit-song power of [McGraw's 1997 album] 'Everywhere' with the concept of 'A Place in the Sun,'" says McGraw's manager Scott Siman, president of rpm management.

"I wanted to make a real Americana kind of record, something that felt grass roots, [with] a lot of different kinds of music, which is what I grew up listening to," McGraw says. "I can do any kind of track, but when I sing, it's going to be country. I'm a [Bruce] Springsteen fan, a Little River Band fan, a Merle Haggard fan, a Keith Whitley fan, a George Strait fan. I just wanted to make a record that was me and my influences."

McGraw made it no secret that he wanted this album released during last year's fourth quarter. Instead, Curb released a greatest-hits package. He openly voiced his disappointment backstage at last year's CMA Awards, charging Curb with "money being the bottom line instead of artistic integrity."

During the awards, McGraw debuted "Things Change" from the new album. Despite never being a single, "Things Change," which was recorded by some radio stations from the broadcast and downloaded from Napster by other stations, went to No. 32 on the singles chart while his official single, "My Next Thirty Years," was winging its way to No. 1, where it remained for five weeks.

"'My Next Thirty Years' actually wasn't one of my favorite records," McGraw says. "I probably wouldn't have picked that as a single. But, oh well," he adds, laughing, "it's a good thing most people don't listen to me."

Still, McGraw doesn't see the recent friction with Curb affecting "Set This Circus Down." "Our priorities aren't the same," he says. "I'll do my job, and they'll do their job, and we'll go on down the merry highway. But they've always sold my records and got them played. So as long as they continue to do that, we'll be fine."

As promotional photos for the new album surface, there will be a noticeable difference: For the first time, McGraw has posed for publicity photos without a hat. "I'm 33 now," says the father of Maggie, 3, and Gracie, 2. "When I first got my record deal, I was 23, and when you're losing your hair at 23, it's a lot bigger deal than when you are 33. Now it doesn't matter to me anymore. I liked having the hat on so I could hide behind it. It's a crutch, I guess."

Fans will get a further inside look at McGraw's life during an upcoming A&E "Biography," slated to air in May. McGraw will be taking his new music to the streets via an upcoming tour with Kenny Chesney (his partner in the now infamous cops-and-horses incident for which both artists were arrested in Buffalo, N.Y., last year).

McGraw recently renewed his deal for the fourth year with tour sponsor Bud Light and will be seen in a new commercial for the beer. Siman says Bud Light will tout McGraw's new release in stores and will support the tour with radio advertising.

McGraw will also participate in a June promotion with Guitar Centers of America and Taylor Guitars, Siman says. The contest winner gets to be a roadie on McGraw's tour.

The title "Set This Circus Down" suggests certain promotional avenues, but Curb Records director of marketing Jeff Tuerff says the label doesn't plan on taking the obvious route. "We're actually trying to stay away from the circus theme," he says. "The primary message behind 'Set This Circus Down' is more about analyzing the hustle and bustle of life and taking a minute to reflect on it."