Tim McGraw Opens Up About Making Music His Way

"I've Always Been Sort of Outside the Circle in Nashville," He Says in Exclusive Interview

You can’t get a better job than Tim McGraw‘s. And he knows that.

“Look, there’s nothing like it,” he told CMT.com during an exclusive interview prior to his Saturday (July 16) night concert in Chicago. “I was talking to a friend of mine about all the jobs that we’ve had in life, and he said, ‘Well, your job is sort of right up there with you can’t get a better job.’ And I said, ‘You know, you’re right. Sometimes you forget about that with everything thing that goes on and the battles you get in sometimes.”

If those battles have cursed him at all since his debut album in 1993, it hardly shows. Since then, McGraw has gone on to have nothing but success. He’s sold more than 40 million records, has taken two dozen songs to No. 1 on Billboard‘s country chart and has collected more awards than his trophy room can likely hold.

But now that he is nearing the end of his 20-year relationship with Curb Records, the label isn’t ready to let McGraw just ride off into the sunset like the end of a good cowboy movie. They have filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against McGraw. And he’s filed a countersuit that asks that he be free to begin recording for himself (or any other party) at the end of July.

“I can’t really say much about [the suit],” McGraw said. “That’s the end of the contract as far as we’re concerned. And I’ve fulfilled my obligations. They have that Emotional Traffic album. Everybody’s heard the first single off of it. There’s a duet with Ne-Yo, a song with Faith [Hill], a lot of great stuff. We just need Curb to let it go.”

And while the label’s position in the suit filed in May 2011 is that the tracks on Emotional Traffic are not “topical and new” enough, McGraw disagrees.

“I think it’s the best album that I’ve ever made,” he said.

During his concert following the interview, he made no mention of the fate of the Emotional Traffic album, even though he played two new songs — “Right Back at Ya” and “Better Than I Used to Be.”

McGraw seems neither bitter nor defeated as he arrives at the end of this journey with Curb Records. If anything, he’s a realist about the vast difference between the music and the business in the music business.

“There’s less love of the business,” McGraw said. “But there’s not less love of the music and not less love of being onstage in front of fans.”

He talked candidly and passionately about that feeling he gets from his fans.

“There’s times where you feel, ‘I don’t really know if I want to go out there tonight and do it,’” he admitted. “But once you get out there and feel it, there’s no other energy like it. You just can’t find that anywhere.” Joking, he added, “I’ve tried. Nothing artificial works as well.”

But when the talked turned serious again, McGraw revealed he’s never been all that interested in guiding his career by the usual guidelines established by the music industry.

“Still, I don’t know the rules,” he said. “I can’t tell you who runs what in Nashville. I’ve always been sort of outside the circle in Nashville and the whole business. I think two things can happen to me when I get too involved: You think you’ll never be good enough to compete with those guys, so it hurts you [or] as long as I stay in my own world, then I’m confident in what I do.”

What it comes down to is that McGraw, the artist, trumps McGraw, the record-maker.

“I really feel like I can do things my way and make music the way I want to make it,” he said. “And that’s what makes me an artist. I can’t go follow any trends. I can’t go make a record like somebody else has made a record. Because it won’t work for me. If I knew what the regular routine is on how to go do something, then I probably wouldn’t be able to do it as well.”

And this isn’t just some fresh confidence that comes from two decades in Nashville. McGraw adopted the attitude years ago — perhaps even before had a right to. He says the turning point came in late 1993 when he was on the verge of recording his Not a Moment Too Soon album.

“I remember specifically laying in bed, and I actually wanted to get in and record as soon as I could because I didn’t know how long they were gonna let me record again after the first album, which didn’t do anything,” he said. “I remember laying in bed that night, and I hadn’t let anybody really hear my songs. I sort of collected my songs from different songwriters, sort of hoarded them. My management at the time didn’t hear them, my label didn’t hear anything.”

Released in 1994, Not a Moment Too Soon ultimately made McGraw a household name with hits like “Indian Outlaw,” “Don’t Take the Girl” and “Down on the Farm.”

“I’m a pretty shy person, and I remember going in the studio the next day with [producers] James Stroud and Byron [Gallimore] and all these musicians, and I remember having to step way outside and sort of catch my breath,” he recalled. “And, you know, your voice shaking when you’re talking. I remember saying that were gonna do this my way, that I’m gonna record these songs the way I want to record them.

“Of course, I had two of the best producers in the business sitting in the room, so I could say I’m gonna do it my way, and they could say, ‘Yeah right, we’re gonna be your gutter guards,’” he laughed. “But I had a vision of what I wanted to sound like.”

That vision still seems crystal clear. His songs may have matured. His twang has surely faded. (Listen to “Give It to Me Strait” from Not a Moment Too Soon for proof of that.) He has made friends and lost friends, but McGraw is one of Nashville’s treasures because he’s never wavered from that vision and has never strayed too far from the sound he hears in his head. Lawsuits and labels will have a hard time taking that away from him.

Nor will McGraw let much slow him down. Even with a broken foot, for his concert at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on the outskirts of Chicago, he opened his show outside the pavilion, near the crowd blanketing the lawn, and then walked carefully through the capacity crowd to the stage way down in front. He did have to use a cane to get around the stage and the catwalk. Pounding it on the floor for some added percussion, though, it became less of a crutch and more of an instrument throughout his two-hour set.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.