Tim McGraw charmed a standing-room-only crowd with his candor and good humor Tuesday (June 8) at the Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville.
During a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Billboard's Ray Waddell, McGraw confirmed he will leave Curb Records following the release of his next album, which will probably be out during the last quarter of this year.
He said the album has already been recorded but is not yet mixed and that it contains one song he co-wrote with the Warren Brothers and Martina McBride. He also explained he recorded the album with studio musicians rather than using his own band, the Dancehall Doctors, as he did on the past four albums.
"It's time for a fresh sound," he said. He added that he will probably return to recording with his band on future albums.
Wearing jeans, a form-fitting gray T-shirt and a black cowboy hat, McGraw walked into the room and stopped at the front row to embrace Mike Borchetta, the man who gave him his first record deal in 1991 by signing him to Curb. Borchetta now captains Lofton Creek Records. The singer then seated himself onstage facing Waddell for an hour of back-and-forth patter before a mostly-industry crowd.
Recalling how he got started in country music, McGraw said he pawned his high school ring to buy his first guitar. He learned to play it during his first summer in college, he said, by watching videos on CMT to learn how to form chords.
"It just shows how careers go," Waddell quipped. "I sold my high school ring in college and bought a keg of beer."
McGraw said that in 1989 he sold everything he owned, came to Nashville on a Greyhound bus and set up temporary residence at the Hall of Fame motel near Music Row.
On the way to getting his record deal, McGraw formed a band and played clubs and dives from his native Louisiana to Texas and back to Nashville. He charted three songs from his 1993 debut album, Tim McGraw, but none rose higher than No. 47 on the Billboard charts.
It was the release of "Indian Outlaw" in 1994 that put McGraw on the road to superstardom. Deemed racially insensitive by some for its cartoonish depiction of Native American life (the "outlaw" of the title wears "buffalo briefs"), the song nonetheless roared to No. 8 and spotlighted McGraw as a talent to watch.
"I love it, and I hate it," McGraw said of the song. "You have to have those types of songs that aren't just lukewarm."
It quickly became evident that McGraw wasn't a one-trick pony when he followed "Indian Outlaw" with the heart-wrenching ballad, "Don't Take the Girl." It was his first No. 1, and it stayed at the top of the chart for two weeks.
After the success of "Indian Outlaw," McGraw said he honored all his scheduled club dates, even as he saw that the lines of people waiting to get into the clubs were getting longer and longer.
"Don't Take the Girl" put him over the top. He said he realized this when he and his band arrived at a club in Houston and saw that the club owner had put bars and big screen TVs out in the parking lot to accommodate the overflow crowd. It was the first time, he added, that he played an audience that sang his lyrics back to him.
Besides singling out Borchetta for thanks, McGraw also praised his longtime producer, Byron Gallimore, booking agent Ron Essig and his former manager, Scott Siman.
When he first met him, McGraw said, Gallimore was still working for Charley Pride's publishing company. "Bryon doesn't like for me to say it," McGraw said, "but he took me to lunch a lot on Charley's credit card."
McGraw stressed that one of the reasons he agreed to speak at the Billboard event was to engage in a frank discussion of where the country music business stands today and what might lie ahead for it. While acknowledging his ongoing feud with Curb over the matter of artistic control, he conceded, "The bottom line [is] I wouldn't have a career if they hadn't signed me." In essence, McGraw continued, "This whole business runs on an artist's vision."
One of his objections to the way Curb Records sells his music, McGraw said, was its incessant repackaging of his hits and near hits. Currently, there are six such compilation albums. "It's sort of taking advantage of people," he said. "Any time I can get new music out, I'm excited about it."
He pointed out that his current album, Southern Voice, "sat around for like two years" before the label released it.
"It's time to make a change," he observed. "I think I've earned that."
As to what's next, he said he'd like to do an album of cover songs, particularly songs from the 1970s that influenced him, and perhaps albums based around certain themes, such as themes treated in a book.
On his increasing presence in movies, McGraw said, "I've always had a secret desire to give [acting] a shot." Movie offers began coming his way, he noted, after the release of his second album. But it wasn't until he was offered the role in Friday Night Lights (2004) that he decided to take the leap into films.
His next movie is Love Don't Let Me Down with Gwyneth Paltrow. In it, he plays Paltrow's husband and manager. "If you look closely," he said, "you'll see I patterned myself after Narvel Blackstock." Blackstock is Reba McEntire's husband and manager. No release date for the film has been announced.
Waddell asked the singer if he had any reservations or second thoughts about the products he's endorsed or lent his name to, among them Fritos and a "McGraw" men's cologne. McGraw indicated he was content with these choices.
"I probably made some wrong decisions because I thought I was too cool to do it," McGraw mused. "You can out-cool yourself."
Does he fear being overexposed? Waddell persisted.
"I'm willing to be overexposed now," said McGraw. "I'm 43. ... You can sort of mystique yourself out of a career. It's not what you've done. It's what you're doing now."
He acknowledged he's not getting the airplay he once did, but he seemed fairly tranquil with that reality. "Radio stations should be a little more in control of what they do and not be told what to do by headquarters," he said. The crowd applauded this observation.
McGraw brushed off the notion that he has any immediate interest in seeking political office. But he didn't rule it out as a distant possibility. "I need to make a lot more money first," he asserted with a laugh.
Movies and politics are peripheral to his first love, McGraw maintained. "Everything good in my life has come from music."
He said he wants to continue to produce other people's music because it allows him to work with artists who can do things "vocally or songwise" that he can't.
Time and again he played down his own considerable vocal talents. "There are people working at the 7-Eleven who can sing circles around me," he noted. "But you've got to be able to move people [with your performance]. You've got to tell them how they feel even if they don't know it."
In concluding the interview, McGraw said, "The good thing about doing this is being able to be frank about what you say and it not being taken the wrong way. ... This should be about what helps everybody and not what helps Tim McGraw."
He paused and grinned. "I think that's the first time I've [referred to myself] in third person. I've got to be careful about that."