At 35, Tim McGraw at the Top of His Game — And the Charts

Had radar been scanning the face of country music in 1992, it scarcely would have registered the presence of Tim McGraw . This was, after all, the year of “Achy Breaky Heart.” It was the year that Wynonna blossomed as a solo act, racking up three quick No. 1 singles in a row. Alan Jackson , Vince Gill , Doug Stone , Brooks & Dunn and Tracy Lawrence all came on strong that season. And looming over the entire lot was the undisputed leviathan of the charted world, Garth Brooks .

So not many noticed that October when yet another “hat act” edged into the charts. McGraw’s debut recording, “Welcome to the Club,” topped out at No. 47. That was stratospheric, however, compared to his next two entries — “Memory Lane” and “Two Steppin’ Mind” — which peaked at No. 60 and No. 71, respectively. At this point, things did not look good for the Louisiana-born newcomer.

But then, in early 1994, McGraw’s label, Curb Records, unleashed his grab bag of political insensitivity called “Indian Outlaw.” Its breezy, cartoonish depiction of Native Americans did about as much for race relations as Moby Dick did for the preservation of whales. Still, it had a great beat, and even its detractors admitted it was catchy. The song roared to the No. 8 slot, while its accompanying music video became CMT’s first “hotshot” pick of that year. Thus began McGraw’s inexorable roll toward superstardom.

Wednesday (May 1), as he celebrates his 35th birthday, McGraw is the Country Music Association’s current entertainer of the year. He’s now recording his eighth album, which is due out Nov. 26. On May 22, he will attend the Academy of Country Music awards show, where he is up for four honors.

From the start, McGraw projected a dual appeal. With his devilish, insinuating grin, athletic grace and frat-boy rambunctiousness he was clearly a “guy’s guy.” But his songs also revealed a tender, give-all-to-love heart that women could appreciate. For every raucous “Down on the Farm” or “I Like It, I Love It,” there was a counterbalancing “Not a Moment Too Soon” or “Can’t Be Really Gone.” It was this soft side that, in 1994, yielded McGraw his first No. 1 hit, “Don’t Take the Girl.” Whatever he lacked in sheer vocal power — and that was considerable — he made up for with interpretation and showmanship.

Buoyed by the power of “Indian Outlaw” and “Don’t Take the Girl,” McGraw’s second album, Not a Moment Too Soon, was certified platinum (for the shipment of a million albums) within two months of its release. On the singles front, McGraw moved ahead with a series of No. 1s and Top 5s that included “Down on the Farm,” “Not a Moment Too Soon,” “Refried Dreams,” “I Like It, I Love It,” “Can’t Be Really Gone” and “All I Want Is a Life.”

In early 1996, CMT announced that McGraw would headline its “Spontaneous Combustion Tour,” with Faith Hill as the opening act. By this time, Hill had emerged as one of country music’s brightest prospects, having already topped the charts with “Wild One,” “Piece of My Heart” and “It Matters to Me.”

It wasn’t long into the tour before rumors began filtering back to Nashville that the relationship between the two artists had become more than professional. A reviewer who covered their May 30, 1996, concert in Rosemont, Ill., gave this description of their show-closing duet: “As the song progressed, the artists moved closer together until her hand was on his stomach, and his fingers were caressing her cheek and chin. Then during an instrumental break, they danced across the stage, bodies pressed close together.”

On Oct. 6, 1996, McGraw and Hill were married, an event that gave country music its first “royal couple” since the all-too-brief union of Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan . Although McGraw and Hill each steamed ahead independently as artists, they also paired periodically to create such appealing duets as “It’s Your Love,” “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me” and the Grammy-winning “Let’s Make Love.”

Marriage and parenthood — the couple now has three daughters — seem to have made McGraw even more contemplative in his music — as witness such wistful and ingratiating tunes as “Everywhere,” “Just to See You Smile,” “One of These Days,” “Please Remember Me,” “Grown Men Don’t Cry,” “Angry All the Time” and “The Cowboy in Me.” While McGraw does not write his own songs, he clearly selects them with great care. “My Next 30 Years,” a mixture of wry reflection and sunny daydreaming, reads like it was torn from his diary.

Any notion that professional success and domestic contentment might be making McGraw docile evaporated on June 3, 2000, when the singer was arrested for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy in Buffalo, N.Y. He did so, he said, because the deputy was manhandling his friend and fellow performer Kenny Chesney . After months of negotiations, the case finally went to trial and McGraw was acquitted. Although the affair was both taxing and frightening — he could have gone to jail — it did reinforce the singer’s tough-but-tender image.

The Buffalo matter occurred when McGraw and Chesney were touring as opening acts for George Strait . Since then, McGraw has continued as a formidable concert headliner in his own right. To date, he has scored 16 No. 1 singles, including duets with Hill and his recent pairing with Jo Dee Messina for “Bring on the Rain.” His seven albums include one platinum, two double platinums, one triple platinum, one quadruple platinum and one quintuple platinum.

In June and July, McGraw will do a brief nine-show tour with stops in Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin and California.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to