Tim McGraw celebrated his 49th birthday on Sunday (May 1).
Also noteworthy is that almost exactly 27 years ago, on May 8, 1989, he moved to Nashville.
Which means that he has been a dedicated country singer for the majority of his 49 years. And I think that deserves a look back at a few of the things he’s accomplished in those 27 years, musically.
Before he moved to Nashville, when he was just a freshman at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, Louisiana, he pawned his high school ring for a guitar.
“I learned how to play 50 songs over that summer and started playing for tips at the end of that summer. And I was hooked from then on, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he recalled in a recent interview.
It was enough to get him to make that move in 1989.
A few years ago, McGraw told me about how he’d honed his craft in those first years in Tennessee.
“Early on, you’re trying to find yourself in a lot of ways,” he said. “I spent a lot of years in clubs singing cover songs and trying to sound exactly like who I was covering. I could do George Strait so good.”
When he finally got a record deal and released his debut album in 1993, it didn’t do all that well. But if you go back and listen, he sounds just as good then as he does now. My favorite off that first album is a song called “The Only Thing That I Have Left.”
“I thought we had a good record, but I also knew it wouldn’t blow anybody’s skirt up,” McGraw told Billboard in 2001, adding, “I’ve been playing for about 14 years now, and you’ve got to pay your dues, I guess, and stand in line. Then you’ve got to live up to it when it’s our time.”
His next album, Not a Moment Too Soon, changed everything. It had his breakout hit “Indian Outlaw,” and his first No. 1, “Don’t Take the Girl.”
All I Want came out in 1995, and it was all I listened to that year (and maybe if I’m being completely honest, the 21 years since). But of all the hits on it, the best one wasn’t even released. It’s called “The Great Divide.” (Think of Little Big Town’s “Your Side of the Bed” but even sadder.)
In 1997, McGraw released Everywhere. And it was everywhere. There were six massive hits that came from that one, and I loved them all. And while I understand that you can’t just release every track from an album, I’d always wished he’d put “Hard on the Ticker” and “I Do but I Don’t” on the radio. I will never not love those two songs.
In 1999, McGraw had A Place in the Sun, and again, it had a long list of hits. But what may have been the most telling one was “My Next Thirty Years.” McGraw was 33 when it was released, and in the 16 years since, he’s definitely been living the lyrics. He has conquered all his adolescent fears, settled all the scores, cried a little less, laughed a little more. (And, yes, he is no longer drinking so many beers.)
By the time McGraw gave the world Set This Circus Down in 2001, it became pretty obvious that he was capable of more than just straight-up ’90s country. It showed his brooding, moodier side. Kind of edgy. Kind of artsy. Like he wasn’t all state-fair barbecue stains and Farmer Johnson’s daughters. Listen to “Telluride” and tell me you don’t want to throw your stuff in your car and head up to the Rockies.
Then in 2002, at a time when piano was kind of becoming a lost art in country, the Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors album had “I Know How to Love You Well.” I was so grateful to hear that piano, and the rest of the song is just so timeless.
There’s not much to say about 2004’s Live Like You Were Dying that hasn’t already been said. I mean, he won a Grammy for the title track. But it also had “How Bad Do You Want It?” McGraw opened the 2004 CMA Awards with this song, and even though it was never a single, I’ve always loved its hard-work-pays-off message. That album also had “Blank Sheet of Paper,” which I listen to every time I’m at a loss for words.
In 2007, there was Let It Go. Seven singles, and they all made it into the Top 20. The best one, for me, was “If You’re Reading This,” a letter written from a soldier to his family after he’d died serving our country.
In 2009, there was Southern Voice. A stack of 12 tunes that could’ve all easily been hits. Like “You Had to Be There.” It was never a radio single. But a song about a man visiting his estranged adult son in prison? That’s country gold.
In 2012, there was Emotional Traffic. I didn’t love the entire album. But one song, “Better Than I Used to Be,” I loved entirely. Sammy Kershaw had released it before McGraw, but there is just something about the way McGraw admits that he’s pinned a lot of demons to the ground — and that he’s cleaning up his act little by little — that makes me fall in love with the honesty of the lyrics.
A few months before McGraw released Two Lanes of Freedom in early 2013, he had a private listening party. I stood in front of the stage and privately listened. It’s hard not to be crazy about an album when you’ve heard it up close like that. But even without that bias, this album restored my faith in country music. Especially “Book of John” and “Number 37405,” because there just aren’t enough country songs about funerals and prison anymore.
McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Town in 2014 had a duet with his cousin Catherine called “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools.” It wasn’t a huge hit compared to the rest of the singles on the album, but it was my personal favorites because of the irony of the lyrics (“some things just don’t mix like you hoped”) and how well his voice mixes with his cousin’s.
Which brings us to now. And to McGraw’s damn country music.
Or Damn Country Music, the album he released in 2015.
The title track alone proves that he is still the man he was 27 years ago when he packed it all on a whim, threw an old Hank cassette tape in, quit his job and pulled his roots from the ground for the hum of wheels on the blacktop and the strum of strings on a flat top.
In the bridge of that song, McGraw sings that even when the money, fame and lights on your name fade, you’ll still be a slave to country music.
With an attitude like that, he could easily do this for another 27 years.