Tim McGraw certainly chose an appropriate title for his new album, Two Lanes of Freedom. With two decades of touring experience behind him, the singer is feeling revived with a new record label and a upward-bound hit single, “One of Those Nights.”
In the second part of an exclusive two-part interview with CMT.com, McGraw recalls his early days of touring, his perspective on privacy and his big idea that didn’t fly at home.
CMT: When you find a song that really fits you, like “Two Lanes of Freedom,” is there a sense of exhilaration that you feel?
McGraw: Oh, that song is like hitting a release button! The sounds in that record have this sort of Gaelic-driven thing, and it’s got this [film director] Terrence Malick vision, this epic quality to it. It really drove the sounds and what the rest of the album felt like. That’s the reason it’s the title track. That’s the reason it’s the lead-off song of the album because it sets the tone for the whole record.
I know there’s a lot going on when you’re onstage, but how tuned in are you to the audience reaction? Are you able to gauge their reactions to the new songs?
I think so. I mean, as an artist, you really feed off the audience a lot. Their energy reflects off of you — and vice versa. So when you play a new record, you get a feel really quickly. I’ve done that throughout my career. I’ve done stuff really early to get it out there and play it in a live venue. If something strikes someone in that situation — when they’re there to hear hits and they’re not too disappointed to hear something new — then you know you might have something.
As an entertainer, are cell phones and digital cameras a distraction for you?
No, they don’t bother me at all. Watching the Golden Globes and Jodie Foster’s speech about privacy, that’s something I really agree with. I think artists are too opened up to the world. There’s not a lot of mystery there. I think that tends to get an audience tired of you quicker. But the cell phones and the pictures and all that stuff, it’s part of the system now. It’s fine with me. It doesn’t bother me.
But you wouldn’t want a camera following you around.
No, I wouldn’t want a camera following me around all the time. I tweet occasionally, but I don’t think people need to know everything about your life all the time. Why? They’ll get tired of you.
Has Twitter grown on you much?
Not much. We do a few things but not much. The things that people talk about all the time, like if we have dinner with friends or vacations, it’s a no-Twitter zone. I’m not stuck on my phone anyway. I offered it up to my family: “Let’s put a basket on the counter, and at 5 o’clock every day, everybody puts those phones in the basket.” But I got a lot of resistance from the females in the house. (laughs) But I take mine to the bathroom and leave it there around 5 or 6 at night.
Is your phone pretty busy during the day?
Not really because most friends of mine are in the same boat as me. And the people who work for me, everybody knows I’m not a big fan of the phone. I don’t usually get a call unless it’s something that’s urgent.
In your career, you played clubs a long time, then you exploded into arenas. But did you ever take the middle slot on a big tour?
Briefly. I did a tour with Sawyer Brown , which was awesome, and I had a lot of fun with them. I did a tour with Joe Diffie . Little Texas and I did a tour together. And I opened for Dwight Yoakam for a little while, too. I’m a big fan. I love Dwight’s new record. I’d love to do a record with Dwight one of these days.
In the days leading up to a big tour, what is going through your mind?
Usually panic, making sure everything works right. You know, the last couple of weeks before a tour is usually when everything that’s going to go wrong has gone wrong. You try to fix things, or you’re trying to cut songs or add songs in. And you’re trying to get the stage design exactly the way you want it — all the little things that aren’t too exciting to think about. Two weeks out, you start thinking about transitions between songs. That’s really when the toughest work comes in — two weeks before the tour.
What was your set list like when you first started headlining?
I played a lot of album cuts. (laughs) Because I didn’t have that many hits. I still do “The Joker” a lot of times, and I used to do the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.” You carried a little bit about what you learned in clubs until you had enough hits to do a whole show.
What kind of equipment were you hauling with you back then?
You know, I don’t even remember my first headline show. I don’t even remember what it looked like. For my first headline tour in ’96, Faith was my opening act. And I spent so much time trying to get her to like me, I don’t remember too much about what was going on.
I thought that was supposed to be the Spontaneous Combustion tour.
It was spontaneous combustion. For me, it was spontaneous! (laughs) I don’t know if it was for her!