By Melinda Newman
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Although he denies any obsession with death, Tim McGraw may be the only country artist whose multi-platinum albums routinely come with a body count.
In the wrenching "If You're Reading This" or the plaintive "Please Remember Me," the protagonist has already crossed over. In the poignant "Live Like You Were Dying" or the pleading "Don't Take the Girl," they are potentially shuffling off this mortal coil.
Similarly, McGraw's 10th studio album, "Southern Voice," out Tuesday, boasts a hefty mortality rate. In "If I Died Today," McGraw ponders both the small ("Who'd turn off my coffee pot?") and the large questions ("Would I be easy to forget?"). Other songs deal with death via murder, suicide and overdose.
"Look, as an artist, when I go to the movies or anything else, I tend to lean towards the heavier, darker stuff; that's the stuff I like," says McGraw, 42, over the phone during a break from a songwriting session in Nashville. "I'm very manic in a lot of ways because I'm either having a really great time singing 'I Like It, I Love It' or killing somebody off, like on 'Good Girls.' Oh, man, I just think that's the way I am."
Indeed, the extremes pull at McGraw. "That's why I don't drink anymore. I had to go to the outer margins," he says. "That's where everything happens to me, on the fringes of your life. . . . That's where all the juicy stuff is going on."
For that very reason, he's seldom drawn to the typical treacly love songs that pervade radio, despite a handful of overwhelmingly successful romantic ballads with his wife, Faith Hill. The closest thing to a love song on "Southern Voice" -- and it's a few twisted miles away -- is "It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You," a humorous look at an avaricious girlfriend. Talk of love in glowing, schoolgirl terms about chirping birds and rainbows, and the gruff McGraw nearly retches over the phone.
"That makes me sick," he says, laughing. "Some of the closest you can get in a relationship is having an argument. What's better than getting in a big fight, then making up?" Then he laughs even harder.
McGraw's history is as colorful -- and as dark -- as one of his songs. He grew up in Start, La., believing his stepfather was his biological father until, at 11, he came across his birth certificate and discovered that major league pitcher Tug McGraw was his father, from a brief liaison with McGraw's mother.
Several of the songs on "Southern Voice" examine the often fractious father-son dynamic, including "Didn't Know It at the Time," about a father who shows up well after the damage his absence caused is done. The CD closes with the words, "Dad, I love you. Goodbye," a fitting epitaph for a son who lost both his biological father and his stepfather over the last few years. Although the father of three girls says he didn't seek out songs about the filial bond, McGraw admits that "both of my fathers being gone allows you a little bit more freedom in not wanting to hurt anybody's feelings in a lot of ways. . . . I think you can unlock a little piece that you sort of keep locked away because people are still around."
He's also mined that territory in his acting roles, whether it be the alcoholic father in 2004's "Friday Night Lights" or more benevolent patriarchs in "Flicka" (2006) and the upcoming "The Blind Side" with Sandra Bullock.
Tug McGraw helped his son secure an album deal in the early '90s, and McGraw was an almost immediate success with the controversial "Indian Outlaw," which some considered derogatory to Native Americans because of lyrics like "you can find me in my wigwam/I'll be beating on my tom-tom." Many more hits followed -- McGraw has landed 22 No. 1's on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart -- but he didn't truly find his voice until 1997 with "Everywhere," "the first album that I really stepped in and put my name on and said I'm going to produce," he says. "Consciously or unconsciously, [that] freed me up to go after the material in a different way."
Although McGraw, who continues to produce with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore, still sang plenty of lighthearted fare, his characters became more complex as they experienced human emotion in gritty and realistic ways seldom sung about in country, such as the couple who can't stay together after her abortion ("Red Rag Top"), the quiet despair of disappearing dreams that destroy a marriage ("Angry All the Time") or the suffocating desperation of life in a small town ("Drugs or Jesus").
"He was no longer interested in those little pieces of radio candy, and he was interested in something with a lot more meat on the bone," says Bob DiPiero, co-writer of the upcoming album's title track, "Southern Voice."
While McGraw didn't write those songs or many of his other hits, he gives voice to them in an often raw, interpretive way that communicates directly with the listener.
"When I'm singing in the studio, I have an image in my mind of sitting at a table with somebody and they're sitting right across from me and I'm telling them something," he says. "There's a lot of music and a lot of people out there who can tell you how they feel, but if you can tell somebody how they feel and they didn't realize it until you told them, then you've got something."