Tim McGraw, the biggest name at this year’s Country Radio Seminar, wasn’t putting on a show, but rather sitting for a career-spanning interview, at a conference wrap-up panel titled “Transcending and Evolving.” While there was plenty of attention given in the Q&A to McGraw’s transcendence as a country hitmaker and actor, questions also inevitably arose about how he evolved into — as moderator RJ Curtis put it — “a beast.”
“You’ve always been in shape,” said Curtis, “but…”
“I wouldn’t say I’ve always been in shape,” McGraw interrupted. “Did you ever see Four Christmases?”
McGraw chalked up having become one of music’s most visible fitness icons to two turning points. One was, in fact, seeing himself in that movie. Or not seeing it, as the case may be; he says he still hasn’t caught the 2009 comedy, because the trailer was enough. The other critical factor the singer cited in becoming so buff, surprisingly, was his years-long battle with Curb Records, which resulted in a frustrating slowdown in his release schedule and culminated in mutual lawsuits in 2011 before he was freed to record for Big Machine.
“Look, I always knew the music would win, no matter what label situation I was in,” he told the assembled radio programmers and personalities. “But it certainly can squash your creativity for a while and make you worry, when you work so hard for your career and for your family and to accomplish the goals that you set out, and a roadblock gets in the way of that. … I wanted to control something, because I couldn’t control anything about all the things that I had worked so hard for. So the first thing I could grab and control was my physical well-being. … It was like hitting a domino for me.”
He wasn’t kidding about Four Christmases. “I still haven’t seen it. That’s one of the times when my kids were embarrassed. We went to the movies, and the trailer came on with my face on the big screen and my kids looked at me: ‘Dad, you’ve got to do something.’ So that was the turning point.” Besides upping his fitness regimen, he realized he “reached a point in my life where I drank too much for a while. … I wanted to be around for my kids, be a better husband and father, take care of myself mentally and physically, and get the most out of my career that I can get out of my career.”
McGraw’s appearance at a ballroom in Nashville’s Omni, Country Radio Seminar’s new location, preceded the conference’s annual New Faces show, where this year Cam, Old Dominion, Chris Janson, the Brothers Osborne and Kelsea Ballerini had been selected as the year’s hottest freshmen. McGraw didn’t need much prompting in being reminded that, in 1994, the New Faces bill at CRS consisted of himself, Doug Supernaw, Clay Walker, Joy Lynn White, Lari White, John Berry, Brother Phelps, Toby Keith, Gibson Miller Band “and one more…”
“I do know who that [other inductee] was. Faith Hill,” he answered. “That was a big night for me.” He looked moderately embarrassed when the crowd tittered while presumably imagining an early McGraw/Hill hookup. (A fan waiting for autographs after the panel yelled: “What did happen that night, Tim?” He answered: “Nothing. I was in love, and she didn’t know who I was.”)
The historicity of that ’94 New Faces show really had to do with McGraw wowing an industry crowd that mostly knew him only for one smash that many considered a novelty song. “I think that that night was probably the most important night of my career,” he said. “‘Indian Outlaw’ was this novelty sort of weird-sounding song. When we got invited to do the New Faces show, I didn’t know what to do behind it. It took me a while to get my head around doing ‘Indian Outlaw’ and ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ back to back. I almost didn’t do it that night, because I thought I should do another uptempo song off the album. And I remember [‘Don’t Take the Girl’] was just electric for me when I performed it” — as it was for that ’94 audience of radio gatekeepers, who got the first glimpse of the kind of heartfelt balladry that would come to even greater fruition in “Live Like You Were Dying.”
McGraw has another one of those kinds of songs right now in his current single, “Humble and Kind.” “I think in the times we live in, it’s an important song, just by what it says. Being a dad and having daughters — one just went off to college; another graduates in May and goes off to college next year; my youngest daughter is starting high school — you start looking at the world in a different way than you look at it without having kids who are going out on their own.”
Whatever conversations McGraw has with those three daughters, none of them have to do with dealing with the effects of celebrity, he said. “When Faith and I decided to get married and decided to have kids, we consciously made a decision that we weren’t gonna really pay attention to that. We were just gonna live our lives. Of course we’ve been in the tabloids — everybody’s in the tabloids — but as a consequence, we feel pretty comfortable with [fame]. We certainly don’t feel like it’s been a hindrance to our kids. They may grow up and write a book and we might feel differently! … Our kids know it’s there, but it’s just not anything that we’ve ever really sat and discussed or dealt with as a family. We haven’t talked to our kids about us being famous, even when they were little… Most of our lives are not spent doing the things that everybody sees you do. I mean, we go to the grocery store. I think sometimes we get sort of surprised by it, like we’d sort of forgotten about for a bit.”
Movies have been on the back burner a bit for McGraw since he garnered attention for roles in Friday Night Lights, Country Strong and The Kingdom (and less so for that aforementioned Reese Witherspoon vehicle). “I would like to do more movies, but I just don’t have time,” he said. “I get two or three months out of every couple of years to try to do something, and sometimes you don’t read anything you think is worth doing, or it doesn’t fit you.”
What he is on, film- and TV-wise, is a narration kick. He’s recorded voiceover for a series of sports specials, including an ESPN documentary about Shaquille O’Neal. Speaking of Shaq, he also signed on as narrator for an upcoming feature film, The Shack (no relation), based on the Christian fiction bestseller. “It’s really cool to be in the sound booth and you watch this film and tell the story. Ultimately that’s what you do in music: you’re telling a story.”
One place McGraw isn’t eager to tell a story is on Twitter. When an audience member expressed his enthusiasm about having recently been retweeted by McGraw, and asked if the star ran his account himself, McGraw drew laughs by dramatically squirming for a few seconds.
“Look, I can be honest: I hate social media,” McGraw said. “I don’t want to get involved in it every day. I’m old school. I was telling Scott Borchetta earlier: I’m an analog guy in a digital world. I don’t quite get it. But I understand how important it is, and I understand that I need to do more of it. I’m told constantly! But I don’t know that I’m ever going to be a social-media animal.”
Pressed by the audience member about whether that meant a member of his team did the retweeting, McGraw owned up. “I can tell you this: I don’t have Twitter on my phone, because my wife won’t let me. And there’s probably a good reason for that. But when I have something to say, I send it to somebody and they put it on there.”