Time For Some Tim-Talk
September 18, 2014
Can we all just pause a moment, to reflect upon and celebrate the incredible awesomeness of Tim McGraw?
At the very least, it's a welcome respite from sweating ISIS, ISIL or whatever we're calling those terrorist bastards this week, not to mention the NFL's off-the-field issues.
So let's talk Tim, shall we? You know, the guy who single-handedly inspired Taylor Swift to write songs and thus, become the planet's biggest music star. She said it herself, remember? "But when you think Tim McGraw/I hope you think my favorite song."
Consider: If we never had a Tim, quite possibly there's (gasp!) no Taylor, red is a mere primary color, #13 retains its unlucky stigma, Katy Perry is the queen of pop by default, Faith Hill winds up an old maid, there's no Soul2Soul II (or I, for that matter), somebody does "Take The Girl," and we're never taught that valuable life-lesson to "Live Like You Were Dying."
Yep. No Tim means all of the above awfulness and none of the brilliant 18 songs on the deluxe version of his just-released, "Sundown Heaven Town" album. More on that in a minute.
This is McGraw's 13th album since he arrived at the apex of the '90s boom for Country, first making news with 1994's "Indian Outlaw." I'm hoping the statute of limitations has run out on penalties assessed for expressing my honest opinion about this song. If memory serves, my then-MD at KZLA and now VP/Program Development & Artist Relations for ZUUS Media, Cary Rolfe, ultimately convinced me to add "Outlaw," even though I absolutely hated it.
While it peaked at #8, frankly, I much preferred his earlier single, "Welcome To The Club." As history has shown, neither had the emotional wallop of the song which followed "Outlaw" and which most of radio first heard at 1994's "CRS New Faces Of Country Music" show: "Don't Take The Girl."
Some of you whippersnappers don't remember, or perhaps hadn't yet fully developed your now razor-sharp cognitive skills, but McGraw shared the New Faces bill with nine other artists that night (among them, Faith Hill and Toby Keith). Each performer was allowed two songs, aided by a house band. After breezing through "Indian Outlaw," Tim absolutely stuck the landing while debuting "Don't Take The Girl," a performance which instantly liquefied more than 2,000 ordinarily jaded and stern industry professionals faster than a microwave zaps two sticks of butter.
Tears segued to cheers, which led to a standing oh-my-God moment. Quite honestly, it was one of the biggest signature moments in CRS history and -- I have always maintained -- established Tim McGraw's career in one song, on a single night.
But McGraw wasn't finished providing radio with career songs. They seemed to keep coming and coming. "I Like It, I Love It," "It's Your Love" (with Faith), "Something Like That," "My Next Thirty Years" and the aforementioned, "Live Like You Were Dying" immediately come to mind, though I've probably left a few out.
McGraw's relentless hit-making has been steadily steaming onward for more than 20 years now and his career trajectory looks similar to, yes, I'm gonna say it: George Strait. Because like Strait, McGraw has ALWAYS sustained relevance with constant airplay on radio and monster tours. He's been a big star since the "Garth era" raged and after it waned. Today, he remains a top-tier artist, during another amazing time for Country music.
In the McGraw-Strait parallel universe I'm suggesting here, McGraw's longtime producer, Byron Gallimore is Tony Brown, who guided Strait's recordings. And the Warren Brothers are Dean Dillon, the songwriting savant who penned so many great tunes for Strait over the years. At a recent event for "Sundown Heaven Town," I think McGraw mentioned he's up to 20 Warren Brothers' cuts now. Not as many as Dillon provided Strait, but then again, McGraw has only been making records for a paltry 23 years, compared to Strait's plentiful 35.
So here comes "Sundown Heaven Town" in late 2014 and if you think the venerable Timster is simply going through the motions on album #13, be advised to phone a friend immediately and have them write you a reality check.
Not only is this album excellent, it's flat-out loaded, one of the best of 2014 and likely to garner ACM and CMA Album Of The Year nods in 2015.
Historically, one of McGraw's strengths has always been an awareness of what songs will and won't work for him. As he shared at a media roundtable I attended this week, "A manager told me a long time ago, early in my career, 'Son, with the way you sing, you couldn't go pop with an ass full of firecrackers!' In a lot of ways, that's been a blessing for me. It's given me the kind of freedom to go in and cut the kind of songs I want and never worry about where they fall."
His instincts are totally on point with "Sundown," a Country record aimed right down the format's middle lane. Great timing too, because in talking with so many programmers each week, I'm sensing a gradual movement back to the center, with fewer pop skewing and Bro-Country sounds dominating current playlists. His recent #1 single, "Meanwhile Back At Mama's," is evidence of this growing shift. If proven to be a true and sustainable trend, McGraw can expect consistent radio airplay for probably two years off this album, with a solid base of substantive new music to take on the road with him.
Be sure and get the deluxe version of "Sundown Heaven Town." As I mentioned before, it contains 18 cuts; the latest release, "Shotgun Rider" is a solid S-3, but I think there at least three more viable ones. "Sick Of Me," "Keep On Truckin" and "I'm Feelin' You" are hooky, cleverly worded no-brainers to me. Then again, I have always been drawn to darkhorse tracks and McGraw has some interesting choices in this regard, too. "Words Are Medicine" is a potential Song of the Year candidate and a great message; "Portland Maine" is a brooding, interesting tune and "Black Jacket," one of the four Warren Brothers songs on "Sundown," is just a great, relatable story song. It's also cut #18 on a deluxe edition - does that count it out as a single? I don't think it should.
Here's one of the perks of staying within the same format for a long time: You meet artists when they're a new act and sometimes, watch them develop into big stars while occasionally -- and even better -- witnessing them evolve artistically and personally. Some of us met Tim McGraw when he was in his early 20s. He's now closer to 50 than 40, fitter than most 30-year-olds (Hell, 20-year-olds!) and based on this project, appears to still be challenging himself musically.
Having been around McGraw here and there during the past two decades, mostly as a radio programmer and now in my current role (whatever that is), I see an artist more self-aware than ever. That's something McGraw also alluded to this week.
"I think ["Sundown Heaven Town"] is sort of a microcosm of everything I've done throughout my entire career from beginning to end and where I'm headed in the future," he said. "When you reach a place where you're pretty sure about your comfort level as an artist, look in the mirror and say, 'I was true to myself when I made this record,' then the rest of it just sort of either falls in to place or it doesn't."
FYI, Tim, it does and it has.