Editor’s note: Watch the Tim McGraw interview in the new episode of CMT Insider premiering Saturday (April 16) at 1:30 p.m., ET/PT.
Tim McGraw lifted two simple words — “emotional traffic” — from a new song he’s recorded to title his latest tour and upcoming album. “It’s such a clever way to sort of picture getting through life,’” he says. “You can either be in a traffic jam or the express lane. Rarely are you just cruising along.”
McGraw’s career, of course, is in overdrive. He’s a constant presence on country radio and a rising star in Hollywood. Still, the road has not hypnotized him. As he tells CMT Insider correspondent (and stepbrother) Mark McGraw, “When you’re on the stage doing the shows for this year, you are already thinking about how you can change it and improve it for the next year.”
During a backstage interview, Tim McGraw talks about his mindset just before taking the stage, his nostalgia for playing the small clubs and his dream list of musical and movie collaborators.
CMT: Is there anything you do to keep your voice up on the road?
Tim McGraw: Knock on wood, I don’t have a lot of problems. The older I get, I have a few more problems, but I think I’ve missed two shows in my entire career because of a sore throat. The first week [on tour] is usually a little rough because I’ve had so much time off. It’s like training a muscle. It’s out of shape, so it gets a little hoarse. But usually after the first week, it starts getting strong again. I don’t have to worry about it too much. I’m like a government mule, plus I don’t really sing, I just sort of yell melodically. (laughs) Sometimes melodically, sometimes not so much.
When the lights are about to come on before the spotlight hits you, describe that feeling, just before you’re about to start that first song.
I was an athlete my whole life. I was a jock, so I played every sport. It really reminds me a lot of being in a locker room or a huddle right before you call a play or playing basketball or baseball. It’s like a pre-game jitter you get — this nervous jittery thing that tunnel-visions everything. It vibrates you into this zone. You get extremely focused and everything becomes extremely sharp, and your senses are really howling. There’s a high like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve experienced a lot of different kind of highs in my life, but there is nothing quite like that.
Early in your career, your shows weren’t quite like what we’re seeing now. Did you ever dream it would be like this, and how do you feel about it these days?
Like any artist, if you start out doing this, I have definitely had delusions of grandeur. I wanted to be the biggest guy out there, and I really wanted to put on big concerts and felt like that’s what I was going to do. Now you always have that doubt in the back of your mind, but it doesn’t stop you from driving. In fact it fuels your drive a little bit.
Just a little bit? (laughs)
Just a little bit. I miss the clubs sometimes and when I used to play clubs. Every now and then, we go in and play a club which is a lot of fun. … You miss the small intimate settings, but at the same time, you really enjoy doing this, and it gives you a lot of energy, and the fans love it. I’d like to figure out a way to do both at one time, and there may be a day where that works. The person who pulls it off really well — he does big shows like this, too, but he also does the scaled-back ones — is Springsteen. But I’m no Springsteen, so I don’t know if I could pull that off. He’s got so much charisma and he’s such a great entertainer and a great artist that you could just sit there and watch him with a guitar and be mesmerized.
With all of your success, does it put a lot of pressure on you from year to year?
That doesn’t put pressure on me. I think what puts pressure on me is myself. I want to compete with me. I want to get better in everything that I do, and I want to get better at doing this. Plus, I’m a competitive guy. It comes from playing sports. … I want to see everybody do well. I don’t wish anybody not to do well. I just want to do better.
If you could perform with any artist musically, who would you choose?
I’d have to go back to the guy we were talking about earlier, who’s one of my heroes and really the ultimate performer, and that’s Springsteen. If I could ever do a song, a show or a tour with him, I would do it in a heartbeat.
You’ve also got a chance to do quite a few movie roles over the last couple years. If there is any one actor you could act with, who would you choose?
That’s a tough one there because I’ve got a big list of great actors. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the finest actors I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s probably an actor of a generation. Clint Eastwood is one of my favorites. I would love to do a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Sean Penn, it doesn’t get much better than that. There are a lot of people I would like to work with.
Luke and I are managed by the same company, Red Light Management, which is a great starting point for a touring partner. He’s had a lot of success. … He’s had a great run with his career, but personally I really like him. He’s a good guy. I hadn’t met him but a couple of times, and we had dinner together a couple of weeks ago just to get to know each other. He seems like a guy that you would like. He’s got a lot of charisma. He’s got some great music. He seems like somebody that you want to hang around. That says a lot to me, and that’s somebody that I certainly want to tour with. And then The Band Perry, I don’t know them very well. I’ve met them a couple of times, but there’s something about that family harmony you can’t beat. There’s such beautiful harmony and there’s such tenderness in their voices and such realism there. And then the song “If I Die Young” is just one of the things that gets engrained in your DNA. It’s just one of those kind of songs. Plus my daughters love ‘em. So that’s a big reason.
What do you think has been your boldest career move?
My boldest career move? Wow. God, I don’t know. … This may not be the boldest, but the first thing that comes to mind is putting out “Red Ragtop” as a single. That was such a poignant song and such a slice of life. The subject matter was probably something that is a little iffy. … But I thought it was an important song. I’m a storyteller, and that’s what I do for a living. It’s not about the judging of the story. It’s about how good the story is. And I thought that was a great story.