NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Return of Tim McGraw (Controversy and All)

NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a weekly column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.

The year 2002 continues to mark the return of mainstream country with a vengeance. Alan Jackson , Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith have all delivered strong albums that have been commercial blockbusters while still maintaining a unique voice.

And now comes the return of the superstars. After being absent from the stage for varying amounts of months and even years, can the Dixie Chicks , Shania Twain , Faith Hill and Tim McGraw regain their thrones?

The Chicks delivered a resounding message of yes! Their albumHome routed the likes of Eminem from the top of the Billboard 200 chart and served notice that they’ll be ruling country’s mainstream for years to come. New albums from Twain and Hill remain musical question marks but I’ve heard much of Tim McGraw’s upcoming album Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors. What I’ve heard is very impressive and continues the growth of musical maturity that McGraw has displayed in recent works.

TMDD was recorded away from Nashville, in an isolated upstate New York State studio, in the sort of total studio immersion that artists like Waylon Jennings used to use to such great advantage. It marks the first time that McGraw has recorded with his touring band, the Dancehall Doctors, and their onstage musical rapport is vividly translated onto disc here. Though not a songwriter, McGraw has generally shown very sharp song sense in selecting his material. That same acumen is displayed here, in a range of 15 songs spanning his usual mix of emotional ballads and raw-edged country rockers. And McGraw looks outside country for Elton John’s lovely “Tiny Dancer,” which he started performing live after seeing its impact in the movie Almost Famous. Kim Carnes also sings on it. Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmitt of the Eagles sing on “Illegal,” one of two songs here that McGraw originally recorded on the group Kattl, when he was producing them several years ago.

But it’s the first single from that album that’s already kicking up a lot of dust. “Red Ragtop,” written by Jason White, tells the story of two young lovers, whose passion takes them over. The lyrics spell out a chilling narrative:

Life was fast and the world was cruel
And we were young and wild
We decided not to have a child
So we did what we did
And we tried to forget

The lyrics are very matter-of-fact about what happened after the abortion:

Well you do what you do
And you pay for your sins
And there’s no such thing
As what might have been

The song’s lyrics were early on posted on pro-life bulletin boards, have been a hot topic in chat rooms and have elicited much discussion and debate on the message boards. In its own way, “Red Ragtop” will undoubtedly be as controversial as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” Probably more so. War has never fanned so many personal flames as has personal morality. As long as there are people who burn to make other people do what they want them to, such songs will flourish. The song has already polarized many McGraw fans and will certainly stir up many more as people start to actually listen to the words of what on the surface seems to be another lyrical tale of young romance.

Not all country listeners today recall the furor that surrounded a Loretta Lynn song in 1975. She was roundly condemned in many quarters for daring to write and record “The Pill.” The birth control pill was a relatively daring subject for the time and for the generally conservative views of country fans and especially country radio stations. Many, many country stations banned the song. But “The Pill” — just like “Red Ragtop” and like many other controversial country songs — does not preach or advocate anything. It simply tells a story. That’s what the best country songs do. I say bravo to artists like Lynn and McGraw for having the courage to face such issues.