Tim McGraw: 'I'm Just Now Learning How To Be Good'

Jun 9, 2013
Originally published on June 9, 2013 12:16 pm

Tim McGraw has been a star long enough that he can look back on his early music and laugh a little bit. That goes for his hairstyles as well; ask him about the music video for "Indian Outlaw," and he'll tell you about what he calls "the mullet days." But that hit from his second album, along with the track "Don't Take the Girl," put his music career on a whole different trajectory.

Since then McGraw has won countless awards and secured a spot as one of America's country music superstars. He's on tour this summer promoting a new album called Two Lanes of Freedom; he discusses it here with NPR's Rachel Martin.


Interview Highlights

On how a song takes shape in his head

"You think about it in colors, almost. You start thinking about all these different textures and layers that you want to have on your record. So when you go into a studio, you sort of have this idea built into it, and you start shooting for those things in your head. You can't actually translate exactly what it is, but you start getting close — or you can go better than what you had."

On his state of mind while making Two Lanes of Freedom

"There's a fresh energy, and a little bit of acceleration. I think, when I went in the studio, I felt like I was in a head space and a career space and a life space for it. I felt like I was just getting my feet under me. After all these years of doing what I do, I felt like I'm just now learning how to be good."

On his expectations at the start of his career

"This business, I think, in a lot of ways, is sort of a two-lane highway. ... One is, there's this huge insecurity that comes along with being an artist. So you never think that you're gonna accomplish anything; you never think you're as good as the next guy. You work really hard, and you hope that you can just make a living at it. On the other hand, there's this school of thought that you have that you're the best there's ever been, and what you have in your head is gonna blow everybody away."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tim McGraw has been a country star long enough that he can look back on his early music and hairstyles and laugh a little bit.

TIM MCGRAW: Ah, the mullet days, yeah.

MARTIN: That was some sweet hair. He's talking about the music video for "Indian Outlaw." That hit from his second album, along with the track "Don't Take the Girl," put Tim McGraw's music career on a whole different trajectory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T TAKE THE GIRL")

MCGRAW: (Singing) Take any boy in the world. Daddy, please, don't take the girl...

MARTIN: Since then, he's won countless music awards and he has secured a spot as one of America's country music superstars. McGraw is on tour this summer promoting a new album. It's called "Two Lanes of Freedom." Washington, D.C. was on his itinerary, and when he was here, he stopped by our studios. I asked him to explain how a song takes shape in his mind.

MCGRAW: So, I have these sounds in my head. I may have a synthesizer sound that I want to use. So, I start figuring out songs that I could use that sound or a drum sound. And so you think about it in colors almost. You start thinking about all these different textures and layers hat you want to have on your record. So, when you go in a studio, you sort of have this idea built into it, and then you start shooting for those things in your head. You can't actually translate exactly what it is, but you start getting close or you can go better than what you had. And that's how you build a record. And I think that that's how you make it fresh and cool.

MARTIN: What was the texture or the color or the sound that was the seed of this album?

MCGRAW: I think it was just a buoyancy. There was a fresh energy, and a little bit of an acceleration kind of thing to it. I think, when I went in the studio, I felt like I was in a head space and a career space and a life space where I felt like I was just getting my feet under me. After all these years of doing what I do, I felt like I'm just now learning how to be good.

MARTIN: Let's play a song that you sing with Taylor Swift. It's called "The Highway Don't Care."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HIGHWAY DON'T CARE")

MCGRAW: (Singing) Bet your window's rolled down and your hair's pulled back, and I bet you got no idea you're going way too fast. You're trying not to think about what went wrong, you're trying not to stop till you get where you're going. You're trying to stay awake so I bet you turned on the radio and the song goes...

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) I can't live without you, I can't live without you, baby. I can't live without you, I can't live without you, baby, my baby...

MARTIN: So, Taylor's a big fan of yours, as you know. I imagine that is mutual?

MCGRAW: Absolutely. I think the thing about Taylor is as young as she is, as smart as she is, how much in control of her career she is, her sense of style, you know, her sense of the whole 360 picture of what it is that she does and her confidence in what she does is she owns who she is and what she does and how she does it. She doesn't try to be anybody else but her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HIGHWAY DON'T CARE")

TIM MCGRAW AND TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) I bet you got to a dead cell phone in your shotgun seat. Yeah, I bet you're bending God's ear talking about me. You try not to let the first tear fall out, you're trying not think about turning around, you're trying not to get lost in the sound.

MCGRAW: (Singing) That song is always on, so you sing along...

SWIFT: (Singing) I can't live without you, I can't live without you, baby...

MARTIN: Who were you as a musician when you were her age, your early 20s?

MCGRAW: I think at 22, I was, you know, playing clubs back then with a three-piece band in a van, pulling a trailer and hauling it all over the country playing clubs. That was when I was just cutting my teeth playing Eagles songs every night. You know, that's sort of what I was doing.

MARTIN: Can you walk us back to that first album that you cut and what your self-title - "Tim McGraw," right - 1993?

MCGRAW: Yeah, I think we recorded it in '91. It was released in '93.

MARTIN: What were your expectations for that?

MCGRAW: You don't want to get in this business. I think, in a lot of ways, it's sort of a two-lane highway, so to speak, that you're on and they're both juxtaposed to each other. And one, is there's this huge insecurity that comes, I think, along with being an artist. So, you never think that you're going to accomplish anything; you never think you're as good as the next guy. You work really hard and you hope that you can just make a living at it. On the other hand, there's this school of thought that you have that you're the best there's ever been, and what you have in your head is going to blow everybody away. And you want to be the biggest artist that's ever walked the planet. So, you really have those two things pushing against each other.

MARTIN: It's a hard thing to balance.

MCGRAW: Yeah. I think you just try to - you hope that if you're extreme in both ways that you'll land somewhere in the middle. I think that's the hope. And, you know, my first album didn't do anything. I like to say it went wood. But you learn. I was surprised that I got a chance to do a second album. And when I did get a chance to do a second album, I went in and thought, all right, this may be my last shot, so I'm going to go in and I'm going to do this album the way I want to do it, the way I want it to sound, the songs that I want to sing. And if I fail, I'm going to fail and I'm not going to be able to look around at anybody but me and say this is what I wanted to do and I failed at it.

MARTIN: Let's get back into the new album. I'd like to play a song about a town a lot of people in country music spend time in. This is called "Nashville Without You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASHVILLE WITHOUT YOU")

MCGRAW: (Singing) It'd be just another river town. Streets would have a different sound. There'd be no honkytonks with whiskey around. No dreamers chasing dreams down. No tourists taking in the sights, no Stetsons under Broadway lights. No pickers playing for pocket change, no rhinestone boots on an old church stage...

MARTIN: It was always going to be country music for you?

MCGRAW: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, you listen to a lot of different things growing up.

MCGRAW: My guilty pleasure really is that soft '70s rock. But...

MARTIN: I love that stuff.

MCGRAW: I love all kinds of music. But, for me, you know, country music - that's what I am. Somebody told me a long time ago, one of my first managers after I made my first record, he looked at me and said, son, you couldn't go pop with a (bleep) full of firecrackers. But I think that gives me freedom too also in my records to make the kind of record that I want and not worry about boundaries, 'cause I know when I sing it that it's going to put it right where it needs to be for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASHVILLE WITHOUT YOU")

MCGRAW: (Singing) Hey, good looking, hey, mama tried. Hey, gambler, hey, country boy can survive. Hey, Charlene, you know it's true, that Nashville wouldn't be Nashville without you...

MARTIN: You had a relationship with your dad - your real dad - late in life, Tug McGraw. You didn't find out he was your dad until you were 11. You didn't really start connecting with him until you were about 18.

MCGRAW: Eighteen and 19, yeah.

MARTIN: Eighteen or 19. I wonder how it's affected how you parent.

MCGRAW: Well, I think it certainly has made me a better parent. I don't know if you could ever say that you're a good parent. I think you try the best. I think if you hit it, you know, half of 50 percent of the time then you feel like you might be doing OK, 'cause you make a lot of mistakes as a parent. My childhood was pretty dysfunctional, and I grew up, you know, in a lot of abusive situations and things that weren't great for my mom and my sisters.

MARTIN: You had a stepdad who had an alcohol problem.

MCGRAW: Yeah, yeah. And so at 11 when I found my birth certificate, that's when I realized that my stepdad wasn't my dad and that Tug was my dad. And who I knew...

MARTIN: We should say, for people who don't know, Tug McGraw was a famous baseball...

MCGRAW: ...baseball player and I actually had his baseball card up on my wall. So, I knew who he was. You know, we never really had a father-son relationship. You know, we didn't know each other that well, and the older I got the more we knew each other. I always like to say, knowing Tug, that if we had a father-son relationship it was more like I was the father and he was the son. 'Cause, you know, Tug was a perpetual 16-year-old. But when I found out he was my father, being where I was from and the situation I was raised in and thinking that you can make something out of your life. So, I think that in finding out that he was my dad gave me a drive to succeed that I might not have had had I not found that out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Tim, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming in.

MCGRAW: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOK OF JOHN")

MCGRAW: (Singing) We were sitting around the supper table and the buzz of the Frigidaire was the only sound till mama laid down, my books found upstairs...

MARTIN: You can catch Tim McGraw in concert across the U.S. this summer. His latest album is "Two Lanes of Freedom." This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.