At this exact moment, Tim McGraw is the third most-popular country artist of the Soundscan era, behind only George Strait (whom he will one day eclipse) and Garth Brooks (whom he won’t). But he’s also 45 years old, badly dinged by a drawn-out legal battle with his former record label and dogged by younger — but by no means superior — hat acts such as Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, who are hard on his heels.
This all goes a long way toward explaining “Truck Yeah,” a musical speed bump on his otherwise great new album, “Two Lanes of Freedom.” The song is a shiny ode to chicks, trucks, chicks in trucks, beer, football and general redneckery. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one minor chord away from being a 1989 Bon Jovi song, and because almost every male artist in Nashville has recently released a song just like it.
And it raises a question: These days, is it possible for a country singer to avoid the obligatory, shameless pander about how country-proud he is, and also how much he loves his truck? Even if he’s one of the most successful musicians of all time? Pose this question to an otherwise good-natured McGraw, and he’ll say, in a state of semi-exasperation, “Look, you take all those things into consideration.”
Which is another way of saying no, you can’t avoid it.
“ ‘Truck Yeah’ for me was very reminiscent of the things I did that sort of broke my career out, stuff like ‘Indian Outlaw’ or ‘I Like It, I Love It,’ ” he says on the phone from Nashville. “Just things that were sort of fun.”
“Truck Yeah” is the first single from “Freedom” and one of the biggest hits of McGraw’s career. Big enough, he hopes, to power a post-lawsuit career reboot. The album is an encyclopedic guide to everything McGraw has historically done well — classic Top 40 honky tonk, romantic ballads, ingratiating Dad Country.
“It’s like a 360 album in a lot of ways,” McGraw says. “I certainly can see and hear and feel elements of what I’ve done throughout my career, but at the same time it opens the door and looks out to the future of where I’m headed for. It’s a pivotal album in my career, and an invitation to the things I’m gonna do.”
“Freedom” is McGraw’s first release for Big Machine Records (home to Taylor Swift) under a contract he describes as “not album by album, but not long term.” His former longtime record label, Curb, sued him for breach of contract for recording new music too quickly, in order, it was alleged, to free himself from his deal. McGraw sounds positively liberated on the album’s title track, in a way he hasn’t in years, or maybe ever.
“That song set the whole tone for the album. Once we recorded that song, then it was like we put our stake in the ground in terms of what we wanted this record to sound like, and what the vibe was going to be.”
“Freedom” is nonetheless more cautious than McGraw’s past releases, which have contained brave and occasionally foolhardy crossover collaborations with artists such as Nelly and Ne-Yo. (There have also more sensible ones with artists such as McGraw’s wife, Faith Hill. Long overdue for a reboot of her own, she doesn’t show up here.) It’s a careful, solid collection bookended with road songs. The closing track, “Highway Don’t Care,” is a sublime, spit-shined collaboration with McGraw’s longtime friend Keith Urban and Swift, whose first-ever single, “Tim McGraw,” put her on the map years ago. Whether it boosted McGraw’s own fortunes, he still can’t say, but he doesn’t think so. “I’m sure there are tons of her fans now who still wonder who or what a ‘Tim McGraw’ is. She’s got fans who have never heard of me.”
With a few exceptions, McGraw doesn’t write his own material, and “Freedom” was cobbled together in the way his albums usually are, with assistance from Missi Gallimore, a friend who is also the wife of McGraw’s longtime producer, Byron Gallimore. “She knows what I like. I still have to listen to a thousand songs, anyway, but she narrows it down from a lot. . . . Occasionally something of mine will show up. I always write, but I gotta let the song win.”
For a songwriter, having a track placed on one of McGraw’s albums is better than winning the lottery, but “I don’t look at who wrote a song 90 percent of the time,” says McGraw, casually crushing the dreams of a thousand Music Row songwriters under his boot heel. “Even now, you could name songs off [my] records, and only on a handful could I tell you who wrote it.” Even McGraw, who still gets first pick of the town’s best songs, laments the ones that got away, although he doesn’t name names.
“You always hear songs and say, ‘Oh, I wish I had that one.’ But I also hear songs that I know that I had, but I thought would be better for somebody else. You don’t want to record every song that you hear that’s a hit record. I think every artist will tell you that.”
Stewart is a freelance writer.