At his rueful, resonant best

Crying all the way to the bank: On the frequently somber "Southern Voice," McGraw delivers the goods.
Crying all the way to the bank: On the frequently somber "Southern Voice," McGraw delivers the goods. (Jeff Swensen - Getty Images)
By Chris Richards
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Few singers have mastered the Nashville trope-a-dope quite like Tim McGraw.

"Southern Voice," the pop-country stalwart's 10th album, is teeming with characters who've populated the airwaves since Hank Williams first tamed the Opry. Homesick heroes, estranged fathers, lonely barflies -- McGraw's handsome voice makes all of their stories sound fresh. He's country music's version of Febreze.

Chalk it up to the man's unflappable delivery, the kind of self-assured croon that comes with being incredibly handsome and owning the pipes to match. (Selling more than 40 million albums probably doesn't hurt the old ego, either.)

So cocksure is McGraw, he flaunts the punch line of his latest single without a spoiler alert -- it's actually the title of the song.

"It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You" finds the 42-year-old draining his wallet for a material girl who subsists on designer handbags and four-figure pooch accoutrements.

"All my credit cards are cookin'/Girl, you don't know what you're putting me through!" the singer exclaims, a Hammond organ moaning sympathetically while the drummer slaps out an amicable backbeat.

It's a kick, but the good times don't roll over into the rest of "Southern Voice." The album is a largely somber collection where the lyrical cliches go zipping by like so many passing trains. Often those lyrical cliches are so many passing trains.

"Midnight train whistles blow a dozen miles down the road," McGraw sings during the album opener, "Still," a song that pines for the quiet pleasures of home. "Ghost Town Train" comes next, with our hero recounting a tale of heartbreak while the band click-clacks behind him. With melodies this inviting, it's easy to hitch a ride.

But "If I Died Today" doesn't get a pass. It's one of those odd, self-pitying fantasies that have populated American culture since Mark Twain had Huckleberry Finn fake his own death. Pondering his mortality with heavy-handed profundity, McGraw wonders, "Will I make the Sunday papers?" (Answer: Not with too many more songs like this one.)

He handles tragedy much better when he narrates from afar. The slow-motion ballad "Good Girls" finds two friends competing for the affection of the same man. It ends in a murder-suicide, and McGraw's cool distance makes it feel all the more tragic. (Plus, they're killed by -- you'll never guess -- a speeding train.)

But McGraw's saddest tale is undoubtedly the album's best cut. "Mr. Whoever You Are" is an emotive waltz starring a young woman who dances her nights away at the local drinking hole. The song never actually mentions her loneliness, but McGraw's somber tones make it feel positively soul-crushing.

Rarely does vanilla taste so bittersweet.

Download these "Mr. Whoever You Are," "It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You"

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