Tim McGraw can put a time stamp on the moment his hustle began. Twenty years ago, the country kingpin, now 47, scored his first Billboard 200 No. 1 with “Not a Moment Too Soon” (Curb), and he hasn’t let up since — even four of his greatest-hits albums crowned the Country Albums chart. He’s currently riding a streak of five consecutive chart-topping studio LPs, which means Sundown Heaven Town (Sept. 16, Big Machine) comes with big momentum — and yet another hit in “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” featuring his wife Faith Hill, which is No. 11 on the Sept. 20 Hot Country Songs chart.
Your LP’s curveball first single, “Looking for That Girl,” features Auto-Tune. Were you aiming to shock people?
I just like the freshness of it. It was something different for me, and as an artist you don’t want to be predictable. It’s important to push yourself. When I open my mouth, it’s going to come out country no matter how pop- or progressive- or modern-sounding the tracks are. But I don’t think you have to come with a record that you know is a guaranteed, right-down-the-middle country radio song, or any radio song for that matter. I can’t make a record that my label wants or management thinks I should make or what I think my fans want to hear. All of those things come into play, but ultimately, you have to put all that stuff outside the [studio] door and come up with something that stirs it up a bit. If you do that and lead that way, then you’ll have some success.
Your equally famous wife sings on “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s.” We don’t hear about you two much as a couple, unlike, say, Beyoncé and Jay Z. Why?
(Laughs.) We don’t really pay that much attention to it. We just sort of move on with our life and put the blinders on when you get stuff like that. We wake up every morning, take our kids to school, get involved with all they’re doing. It just doesn’t even come across our radar.
What’s happening with your acting career?
Next spring Tomorrowland with [George] Clooney and Hugh Laurie comes out. I play a dad who’s a rocket scientist — [one of those is] a stretch. (Laughs.) I just finished looking at a script that’s really interesting — it’s a dark, cool, True Detective cable mini-series sort of thing. I’m weighing if I have the time to do it or not.
You have been in the spotlight for two decades. How does that feel?
Some days it feels like I’ve been doing it forever and some days it feels like I’m just scratching the surface. I’m at that point in my career where there’s confidence in what I do, but I also feel like I’ve still got so far to go and so much to learn. That’s the perfect combination.
An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.