Seated inconspicuously in a corner booth at Nashville’s Sportsman’s Grill less than a week before Christmas, Tim McGraw seems to have found a little peace on earth.
Professionally, at least (though he doesn’t make that distinction), McGraw says that “the last five or six years have probably been the toughest years of my life.” After an acrimonious split from Curb Records, his label home for the first 20 years of his career, McGraw will release his first record on Big Machine on Feb. 5, Two Lanes of Freedom. The title comes from an anthemic track on the record, and freedom-and acceleration-are prevailing themes on a set that finds McGraw and longtime producer Byron Gallimore delivering a sonically ambitious collection of songs that is equal parts fun, romance and big-picture vignettes.
The long and exhaustively covered legal wrangling between McGraw and Curb hit a milestone last September when the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in Nashville upheld an earlier ruling that denied Curb Records a preliminary injunction to prevent McGraw from signing with another record company. While certain legal issues are still to be determined regarding breach-of-contract suits and countersuits, Team McGraw is looking forward, though McGraw admits the scars of the split are still fresh. For example, he uses the term “cock-blocked” in describing his final years with the label, as he watched a bevy of young male country artists find success on a stylistic bedrock in many ways pioneered by McGraw, who was burning to take his music to new heights.
“They hurt my career,” he says of his previous label. “I felt like I was at the top of my game, and to not be able to get to the places I wanted to be … it was really hard to sit back, with me being competitive. Nothing against any other artists-I love success for anybody. I always say, ‘I want everybody to do great. I just want to do better.’ Just watching all the things that are going on and to have to sit on the sidelines, it’s been tough.”
This pre-holiday conversation doesn’t look back for long, but rather teems with optimism from McGraw about what this new era will hold. “It’s like I put it in a different gear now,” he says. “I really feel like I’m only about 35% into my career. There’s so much more ahead of me, musically and everything else. It feels like the clouds have parted and now I can find my lane and press the gas.”
Consider gas pressed. The album, produced by McGraw and Gallimore, is loaded with the hallmarks of the pair’s past successes while venturing into new sonic territory. McGraw’s musical instincts have proved savvy. He’s charted 68 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs tally, including 24 No. 1s. He has had 13 No. 1s on Top Country Albums and has sold 41 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, eighth-most among all acts in the SoundScan era.
Such a track record made McGraw an appealing prospect as a free agent. “The marketplace was very open to Tim,” says Coran Capshaw, McGraw’s manager since 2009 and founder/owner of Red Light Management. “Tim was looking for a place he felt truly would be his partner, and the foundation of this business relationship [with Big Machine] is a partnership.”
Big Machine head Scott Borchetta “leads a tight, smart, efficient, entrepreneurial operation,” Capshaw says. “As we were approaching the launch of this album, we learned a lot about the strength of the team he has assembled over there. And great relationships at country radio are paramount to Tim, and Big Machine really offers that.”
For his part, Borchetta says McGraw is perfectly positioned for another career uptick. “Here’s a guy who’s come through everything he’s had to deal with who has an open lane, no pun on the title of Two Lanes of Freedom,” he says. “The fans are going to absolutely freak out. He’s fully engaged, and there’s a ton of great music and live energy left in Tim McGraw, so it’s a fantastic time to be working with him. There’s times I sit back and think, ‘Wow, Tim McGraw’s on Big Machine. How cool is that?'”
Asked what was appealing about Big Machine and Borchetta’s team, McGraw doesn’t hesitate. “It’s not a long answer,” he says. “I wanted to go someplace where there’s a freshness and energy, and Scott’s got that energy. Anything’s possible, there’s no rules, and I feel like I made my career that way. Had I known the rules, I wouldn’t make records the way I make records. I’ve got all the freedom I want. It’s a partnership.”
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Big Machine has plenty to work with in the 11 songs that populate the standard edition of Two Lanes of Freedom (the “Accelerated Deluxe Edition” has 15). McGraw is a master of balancing lighter fare and introspection, navigating the byways of pain and regret as skillfully as the more common themes of romance and freewheeling good times.
The title track is a big, panoramic anthem with prominent guitars and a sonic feel that alternates between Gaelic and Middle Eastern; second single (after “Truck Yeah”) “One of Those Nights” is a power-charged midtempo with U2-ish guitars and a mood of electric anticipation; “Friend of a Friend” is a wistful ballad with a spirited guitar solo and memorable coda; and “Book of John” is a cornerstone of the album, a big-themed take on mortality in a vein that has served McGraw so well in the past (think “Live Like You Were Dying”). Another standout is the regret-laden “Number 37405,” a riveting take on consequences that finds McGraw again playing the omniscient narrator role to perfection.
Skillful sequencing keeps the set from being a downer, with songs like “Southern Girl,” the R&B-flavored “It’s Your World,” the Beatles-esque “Mexicoma” and the backwoods rave-up “Truck Yeah” tapping into McGraw’s more playful impulses. The lattermost track, debuted on McGraw’s summer stadium mega-tour with Kenny Chesney and released as the leadoff single, proved an immediate hit with country fans, having already sold 593,000 digital downloads, according to SoundScan, and reaching No. 6 on the country singles chart.
Another song sure to explode beyond McGraw’s core fans: an inspired pairing with Taylor Swift on “Highway Don’t Care,” a softly percolating carpet bomb, with Keith Urban adding tasty guitar licks. McGraw and Swift are linked by more than the label they now share. The single that introduced Swift to the world in 2006 was “Tim McGraw,” a song about its namesake providing the soundtrack of a romance that has run its course. McGraw says he didn’t know Swift – who he calls “the biggest artist in the world” – when her debut single was released. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Have I gotten that old?'” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t realize she was like 12 or 13 when she wrote it. It’s a great song. Taylor is really special, and she’s gotten exponentially better with every project. She owns her style now. Instead of searching for a style or trying to be something, she owns who she is.”
McGraw says Nashville tunesmiths are writing killer songs these days. “I hear hits every day. I pass on songs all the time that I know are hits,” he says. “But I don’t want to just do hits.” The artist has to reconcile himself with the fact that what he records he may well have to sing for the next 20 years, a thought that “shows up quite a bit” in the winnowing process, he says with a laugh. “I’ll hear something and think, ‘I just don’t want to play that.’ Byron and Missy, we’ve worked together for so long. She, in particular, narrows it down, but I still have to go through thousands of songs. I trust her ears to get close to what I’m looking for.”
McGraw’s interpretive skills have an uncanny way of reaching listeners, which he attributes to “lack of ability more than anything else,” he says. “I never try to oversing. I try to be subtle in what I do. I like it to be dark in the studio when I’m doing vocals. I don’t have any lyrics to look at, and I try to picture me sitting there on a bar stool right across from somebody, me just talking to them, trying to get a message across. There’s a difference between singing at you and singing to you. A lot of what we do is telling you how we feel. But the real key, I think, is telling somebody else how they feel. Even better is if you can tell them how they feel and they didn’t even know they felt that way until they heard that song.”
McGraw says he views Two Lanes of Freedom, as he did his previous records, as “a watershed moment in my career. It’s a time where I say, ‘All right, let’s see if I can go another step up. Let’s see if I can find a deeper well in what I do artistically.'”