McGraw talked to Billboard about how he couldn’t have made this album earlier in his career, his return to Big Machine Records, and how he’s holding up through the pandemic, especially as he and wife, Faith Hill, prepare to become empty nesters.
How are you as we go into the sixth month of the pandemic here on earth?
I'm doing well. I miss being on stage and playing music with my band. I’ve probably done this for 30 years or so and you always say, “God, I wish I had six months off where I could recharge my batteries a little bit. Maybe take it easy.” Now that I do have that time, I feel like I'm going crazy.
This album is coming out as you're preparing to be an empty nester with your youngest daughter, Audrey, headed to college. How are you doing?
Look, I fall apart at the drop of a hat. I fall apart at a Hallmark commercial. I can't even really talk about it. I wrote down a speech for Audrey's [high school] graduation we did here at the house and I still haven't read it to her just because I can't take it. I guess that’s just a dad with daughters… Faith had put a bunch of posters of Audrey all over the house for a party just for our family here.
There's one in the living room when she's about four years old. Yesterday I walked through there, I mean, my heart fell to my knees and tears just poured out of nowhere just looking at that picture. It's hard to believe that all these years have passed. Then the second thought is you want them be happy and have the opportunities they can have and the world becomes a better place.
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From the opening swirling strings and guitar on the first track, “L.A.,” which is such a beautiful homage to Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb, you're drawn in immediately. This is an album that takes you places.
First off, “L.A.” is probably my favorite overall record, sonically, musically, that I've ever made. There’s something so special about it to me and that's why I wanted to start the album up with it because it's got a timelessness to it. And I felt like when we were trying to do with this whole album was create a timeless sort of feeling. I wanted you to feel that instantly when you heard those strings and the whole album kicked off.
How long have you worked on this album?
We started making this album at the end of our second leg of the Soul2Soul Tour [in 2018]. I wanted to create this sort of tapestry of life in a lot of ways and then each song is a vignette of different stages of life. And then I wanted a few tentpole songs that covered the scope of life in one song. So that's why when “Here on Earth” came around, that was like the song that became the anchor for everything else.
Is the video for “Here on Earth,” which features a diverse array of people from all walks of life, something you would have made before Black Lives Matter or the shut down?
I think it probably would have been because it made the same sense to me in the big picture of life, much like “Humble & Kind.” We wanted a “Humble & Kind” sort of vibe for the video because I think this album has a universal feel to it in a lot of ways.
That song is a romantic love story, but it also works as a story about love of humankind.
It’s a 30,000-foot view of life that we live in. The album is taking you through these stages of life in a lot of ways, not only lyrically, but emotionally and sonically towards what I was trying to create.
There’s the 30,000-foot view that you mention and then there’s the 5-foot view. Some of these are songs recreate micro scenes that play out in individual homes every day between couples, like “Damn Sure Do” and “Good Taste in Women.”
The great part about making this project is being able to tell those sort of everyday stories. I wanted it to be like this movie that you're walking through and there's different scenes in the movie that everybody can place themselves in whether they directly relate to the characters or not. I think that's what great art does. It gives you an opportunity to place yourself in the middle of the action.
Your concept of family extends to our four-legged friends on “Doggone.” You didn’t write the song, but did it remind you of a particular pup in the McGraw-Hill household?
Not in particular, but we did lose our patriarch to our dog family right around Thanksgiving last year. We have his son left here at the house, Stromboli. Dogs are just such a special part in people's lives, and this song was one of the last ones to come in. All the things we're talking about -- these relationships and looking at the world as it is and also looking at the intimacy that goes on in people's everyday lives -- and I thought how perfect to include something about your dog.
With so many of us at home all the time, it feels like our pets have helped keep us sane.
Absolutely. You’ve gotten closer to them. Even if they drive you crazy, they’re in the room all the time with you now.
It feels like you couldn’t have made this record before now. It’s of this time and it’s of your time.
I just hope people get it. There’s a lot of emotion in this record.
This album marks a return to Big Machine Records for you following a short stint at Sony. What makes Big Machine a good fit for you?
I've always gotten along really great with [Big Machine Label Group founder/CEO] Scott Borchetta. What I need as an artist is somebody who's gonna sit down and go over stuff with me, and we're going to argue about things and we're going to be passionate about music and really get involved in discussing it. And Scott has all of that. When he listens to something and he likes it, you know he likes it, you feel that he likes it.
He's an artist at heart and I think that's what comes across to me when I communicate with Scott. Plus, I've known Scott my entire career. I missed working with Scott. Nothing against anybody else, Scott and I just really work well together.
The few songs that you released during your Sony time aren’t on here. Why is that?
They were part of this project early on, but we’ve moved on to a different world and I wanted to start fresh. Whatever people had heard already, I didn’t want that to part of what this body of work was going to be.
Taylor Swift had a hit with a song called “Tim McGraw,” you’re now singing a song with the title "Sheryl Crow." What did she think when she heard it?
Sheryl sent me a really sweet note and thank God she loved the song. It would be bad if she didn’t [laughs]. I loved her instantly when I first heard her. It would be fun to have her come out and play bass on this song.
This album feels like the lyrics led your song decisions more than the melody.
From the first thought of making this record, I didn't want to make a concept record per se, but I did want to make a record that was about humanity in a lot of ways. The lyrics always are important to me, but the more this record started building, the more songs we started recording, the more this stories started being told and the more intimate it got, the lyrics became more important.
Has what you look for in a song changed over the years?
Not consciously, but I think in just the sort of a natural progression of life and living it, the way you perceive songs and the way they move you are different. I have a hard time just cutting something that’s a tear-your-face-off, rocking song unless it's something that I can actually feel good about singing or relate to in a way that fits who where I'm at in my life. My wife will tell you that she thinks maybe I've turned 16. So I don't want it to mean that I’ve grown up, because I haven’t really grown up, but I have learned to absorb life and view life. And as I've slowly matured in my life, I listen to songs differently.
Throughout the pandemic, you’ve done several live streaming events that saluted first responders and even called into a hospital to sing to one of the nurses. How important has that been to you to use your voice in that way ?
It's a crazy time that we live in. Not only do [first responders] have the heart for it and the strength to do it, they have to deal with losing people constantly, being the last face that people see because their family can't be with them or making that FaceTime phone call for that family member. It's just takes a tremendous amount of inner strength for people to take on those jobs and be that caring and to be that willing to help people. I just have a heart for that. Maybe it's because in my heart, I know I'm too selfish to be able to do that. I feel like they're special people.
You’re a student of history. We’re at a pivotal time in our country. What do you think the country community can do to better support artists of color?
I can't speak for anybody else, but myself. I just feel like the way I grew up with what my mom taught me is you're no better than anybody and nobody's any better than you and you have to work constantly to make the world a better place and to make everybody believe who you are in your heart. I know a lot of country artists, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way about being inclusive with people.
And I think, country music has gotten a rap for that over the years. You want people to look at our music and our artistry as being very inclusive and very open minded and I think you can go back to people like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and artists that always led with their hearts that way. For me, I always want to work with people.