Tim McGraw Celebrates 'Damn Country Music' In New York City

Pandora Presents: Tim McGraw
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for PANDORA Media

Pandora Presents: Tim McGraw on November 11, 2015 in New York City.

Midway through a set last night in New York City, Tim McGraw switched into preacher mode. “Can I get an amen?” The crowd obliged quickly and enthusiastically; these were the true zealots. The country star played -- at an event hosted by the streaming service Pandora -- in an unusually small venue for a singer of his stature, which meant that only the biggest fans fought their way in: according to harried staff at the Edison Ballroom, some people had been waiting in line since 4 a.m.

The reason for the show was ostensibly McGraw’s new album, Damn Country Music, but the record played a minimal part of his set. This was all about the hits, recent smashes -- “Southern Girl,” “Truck Yeah” -- along with a sprinkling of McGraw classics, which now approach the status of standards in the modern country canon: “Real Good Man,” “Just To See You Smile,” and “Live Like You Were Dying.”

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McGraw works in the adult contemporary tradition that has long been an important component of country music, at least since George Jones and Billy Sherrill perfected countrypolitan in the early ‘70s. He doesn’t rock hard or effectively; he won’t dance like Luke Bryan, delve into rap like Blake Shelton, or glower like Eric Church. Though McGraw has showed some stylistic daring in the past -- most impressively on his 2004 Nelly collaboration “Over And Over” -- that’s not what listeners come to him for. A young Taylor Swift understood that McGraw was comfort food; she named her debut single after the singer, using him as a stand-in for happy times.

McGraw is dependable -- an important aspect of artistry in country music, where longevity is part of the qualification for stardom. An album from this singer always has something to offer, and he releases records like clockwork, 14 of them since debuting in 1993. His skills have not diminished with time. “Friend Of A Friend” from 2013’s Two Lanes Of Freedom, finds the singer immaculately heartbroken; listen for the backing vocals that squirt softly during the histrionic outro. Last year’s “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” was a precious bauble, shockingly delicate for a No. 2 Country Airplay hit.

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So don’t be alarmed by the title of McGraw’s new album: Damn Country Music could be a combative statement from a testy elder upset about the current direction of the genre, but it’s no more grumpy than any McGraw album, which is to say not grumpy at all. The title track actually ends up being about how much he loves the genre, an ode to “The hum of wheels on the blacktop/ The strum of strings on a flat top.”

All of this is immaterial when McGraw hits the stage. His voice, slightly pinched, is the essence of one strain of male country, a pure distillation of the form; he applied a slight quaver for emotional effect at judicious moments. He’s an experienced performer, remarkably dynamic for someone who doesn’t move all that much. McGraw’s smile is ever-present, his shirt casually unbuttoned to mid-chest. He worked the crowd like an expert politician, shaking hands while singing without missing a note, letting audience members sing a line out of key at exactly the right moment.

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And there’s the famous cowboy hat, which served as the eighth member of his adept band. This accessory has long gone out of fashion in country music, but McGraw looks like he still sleeps in it every night, yet another facet of his dependability. During “Shotgun Rider,” he offered a shoulder to sleep on; “Just To See You Smile” was a country lullaby. He introduced one song by explaining, "This speaks to anyone who's passionate about anything." Amen.


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