MILWAUKEE -- It's been almost 20 years since Tim McGraw scored his first No. 1 song. And in the two decades since, very few things have stayed the same.
Prior to his Friday night (July 5) concert at Milwaukee's Summerfest, he visited with CMT.com and talked about how things changed for him after "Don't Take the Girl" topped the country chart in 1994.
McGraw's sobriety is probably the most talked-about change, and he candidly admitted that taking the stage without any alcoholic courage has been tough.
"I'd spent years and years and years probably never being onstage without having a drink," he acknowledged. "It's still something I struggle getting used to. It's not a stage fright thing as much as it's just trying not to be self-aware. When you go and do a show, you're sort of creating a contract with the audience."
He described that unspoken contract as one in which both parties agree to suspend real life for the night.
"You're buying into me being a clown, and I'm buying into you enjoying yourself," he explained. "And so let's not judge each other. You know I'm not like this every hour of every day of my life. I know that you're not screaming and jumping up and down and being drunk, singing along and dancing every day of your life.
"That was easy to do when I was drinking. But being sober, you go out there -- and it's getting easier now -- but I'm thinking, 'I don't go around wearing these tight jeans and dancing around like a chicken on a hot plate in my everyday life.' That was what was hard."
But even the way McGraw makes his music has changed since his first shot at major success with the release of his second album, Not a Moment Too Soon. During the conversation on his tour bus, the Louisiana native touched upon a series of other topics.
Choosing songs to record: "I don't know that that much is different about the way I pick songs or write songs. But I think that you just sort of have more experience in life and certain things that don't really fit with what you feel comfortable singing. And you have to keep in mind that early on, when you're singing a song, you find things that fit your lifestyle.
"As you get older, you realize that you're not just singing about you in particular. You're singing about everybody else that's out there. So you find songs with a character in that song, and you sort of walk through that song as the character in a lot of ways. You've gotta realize people are living vicariously through these songs, so you can't get stuck on what's about you."
He added that he prefers to open his heart, and then when the lights go down and he gets behind the microphone and starts singing, he becomes that character in that song.
His changing his vocal style: "Early on, you're trying to find yourself in a lot of ways. 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," he laughed.
Now though, you'd be hard pressed to hear much of a twang in his voice.
"You start getting more and more confident with who you are and how you sing, and you mature," he said.
McGraw thinks his voice now, at age 46, is his best yet.
"I feel like I'm getting better. Like I'm just now figuring out who I am as an artist, in a lot of ways. It's like a shape's starting to take form. And I feel like in the next 10 years of my career, I'll make the best music I've ever made."
On how he listens to music: McGraw has always said that he is a child of the '70s and that the Eagles have been his favorite since he was a kid. And they still are. But, with older and wiser comes more musical influence.
"I'm influenced every day by everything I hear," he said. "I still listen to Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley, and I still love George Strait. But I love the new acts like Jason [Aldean] and Luke [Bryan]. And I love Keith Urban. But Keith's been around as long as I have.
"You know, I have three daughters, so I hear stuff that I might not have heard. If I'm hauling six cheerleaders to practice in the afternoon, I'll hear stuff on the radio that I probably wouldn't normally have heard.
He went on to describe how country music is crossing boundaries now more than ever and that the spectrum keeps gets broader.
"You hear stuff like Mumford & Sons now, but 20 years ago they would've just been a country act. But from England."
Road life: "It's much easier now," McGraw admitted, saying that he hadn't actually come into Milwaukee by bus. "I fly a lot more now. I flew in here about an hour ago. So that's certainly a lot easier than it used to be. I mean, after 'Indian Outlaw' broke, I did over 260 shows a year for two years. Now we'll do 40 or 50. But it's a matter of numbers, too. You play 260 shows because you're only playing for so many people a night. When you play for bigger audiences, you cover more territory."
Preshow rituals: "I used to get wasted. That was my pre-show ritual. Not wasted. More like a couple of shots. I'm a pretty quiet and reserved person, in general, so in order to even get onstage, I had to drink. I don't do that anymore. Working out is my new ritual."
Career evolution: "When you're young, you spend a lot of time just wanting to succeed," he said of his first years in Nashville when just paying his bills would have been some measure of success. "But I think now, I still want to lead the race. I still want to be the guy. I want all those things, but I've always been a music guy, so I want to make what I do lasting. I've always wanted my music to matter."