Tim McGraw seemed destined to achieve great things ever since he was young, but making those accomplishments as a musician seemed like his least likely prospect. After McGraw graduated as his high school's salutatorian in 1985, he enrolled in the pre-law program at Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM), which he attended on a baseball scholarship and with assistance from his biological father, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Tug McGraw. While McGraw seemed most likely to become an athlete or attorney, he found the draw of music irresistible, and in 1989 he dropped out of college and bought a one-way bus ticket to Nashville to pursue his dream of becoming a singer or songwriter.
Within a year and a half of relocating to Nashville, McGraw signed a recording contract with Curb Records and started making albums. By 1995 he earned his first #1 single and album, and by 1997 he replaced Garth Brooks as country music's most popular male artist, a distinction he has now enjoyed for 15 years. Today his achievements include selling more than 40 million albums, 11 consecutive #1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, and 32 #1 radio singles, which helped him earn status as the most played radio artist of any genre- not bad for someone who confesses that he entered the music business almost as a last resort.
"I was an athlete growing up," McGraw admits. "I played a lot of ball, but I loved music and listened to records and radio all the time. I even sang in church, but I never thought about making music a career. I'd hear these artists on the radio and just assume that they all had guitars in their hands and had voice lessons since they were two years old, and that they lived music since they were very young. I didn't realize that I was also living music at the time. When you live music you really don't know that you're living music. It's just a theme that's running through your life when you're growing up."
McGraw's motivation to play music professionally developed while he was attending NLU, where he started playing gigs in clubs as a singer. McGraw says that he started playing guitar around this time as a way of meeting girls, but also admits that it was a necessity when he was a struggling singer.
"I learned to play guitar over the summer when I was in college," he says. "I couldn't afford to hire a rhythm guitarist so I had to learn to play all the rhythm guitar parts when I was playing in clubs. I was probably a better guitarist when I first started than I am now because of that. As soon as I could afford to hire a rhythm guitarist that was a lot better than me I didn't play guitar a lot any more."
McGraw also found the guitar a helpful tool for writing songs, and he still often picks up a guitar when he's searching for new ideas. Initially, McGraw's motivation for moving to Nashville was to establish a career as a songwriter. "I started writing songs before I became a performer," he says. "When I first came to Nashville I was writing songs. Back then I wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs, even though most of them were bad songs."
Although McGraw is a songwriter himself, he still relies on the deep pool of songwriting talent in Nashville when seeking material for new albums. "I've always written songs for every album I've made," he admits, "but I have to put my songs up against everyone else's. I usually write about 10 songs for each album, and sometimes they make the cut and sometimes they don't. I don't care if a song has my name on it or if I'm the co-writer. I just try to find the best material for each album that I can find. Knock on wood if I'm lucky enough that one of them is mine."
A big part of the key to McGraw's success and longevity is his uncanny knack for choosing songs not for their hit potential but rather for how well they fit his personality. "I look for songs that hit me as honest," McGraw explains. "The lyrics need to be something I would say or do.
When I hear a song I like I only listen to the demo one or two times until I know what the song is. Then I do my own thing. Sometimes when I go back and listen to the demo after we've finished it's radically different than the demo. I might say a line wrong, but I don't care because it has to be something that comes from me. Music is not just about how great you sing or play. It's how you interpret a song and how you communicate. That's what I try to do with the songs I record. If you're not honest, it will show up sooner or later."
One way McGraw has kept his approach honest is by working with the same producer who has been by his side since he first started out, Byron Gallimore. Both were initially unknown figures in the Nashville music scene in the early Nineties when they both paired up, but McGraw says that was somewhat of an advantage when it came to developing his own sound.
"Byron showed up one night to see my band when we were doing a showcase at a club," McGraw recalls. "I had a big nine-piece band on stage that night, and we played for about three hours. Byron liked what he heard. He didn't have much going on then as a producer, and I didn't have much going on as an artist except for the gigs I played in clubs. We started working together, finding our sound, and finding what type of songs worked for me and what type of records I wanted to make. I never approached my career with any sort of model, but I knew that I didn't want to make records that sounded like other artists that were already out there. I had to develop my own sound, because that's the type of artist and singer I am. I had to develop my own path or it wasn't going to work for me. Byron was fantastic in helping me discover myself."
While many Nashville producers prefer to dictate which songs an artist will record, Gallimore steps aside and lets McGraw make the ultimate decisions about the material he records. "Byron helps me choose songs, but ultimately it's my final decision," says McGraw. "If he comes up with something that he's adamant about me doing, I'll definitely give it a shot, but I'm the one who needs to decide what songs are right for me. It's not always a popular decision, but I have to be true to what I hear and what I think I should sound like."
"There is no right or wrong way. Sometimes it's just time for a change." - Tim McGraw
This independent spirit eventually inspired McGraw to break with the Nashville tradition of making albums with studio musicians and record with his touring band, the Dancehall Doctors, on his 2002 album, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors. Since then, the Dancehall Doctors accompanied McGraw on his next three albums, although he still recorded an occasional track with Nashville's A-Team session players.
"Nashville has the best musicians in the world," says McGraw. "Anybody who comes here to work quickly realizes that Nashville session players are some of the best musicians you'll ever run across. I've made some great albums with some great Nashville musicians. My band and I have been together for a while, and they've become a big part of the sound I developed. I finally decided to bring that into the studio because I wanted to duplicate the sound that I developed on the road and in clubs. I wanted to get away from the same licks that I was hearing on everybody's records and keep my sound original. The best way to do that was to take my band into the studio and cut a few records with them. We got this great, earthy, Seventies analog sound that I strived to go after. We had a great run doing that."
"On my last album, Emotional Traffic, I went in the studio with some very eclectic session guys and made a really fantastic album," he continues. "It's good to do it both ways. When you work with studio musicians, it's quick and fast. The guys in my band are fantastic players as well, but when I make records with them I get to dig in a bit more, take my time, and develop stuff on the road before I go in the studio. There is no right or wrong way. Sometimes it's just time for a change."
This approach usually applies to the gear that McGraw uses to capture his vocals while recording as well. McGraw admits that he doesn't know the particular details of what microphones, preamps, and other items in the signal chain that he uses, but he says that he constantly tries a lot of different combinations to come up with the best setup for each particular song. "I just know when it sounds good," he explains. "Byron and I will go through a lot of different things to get the sound that I want."
One constant in McGraw's world is a relatively new addition—his JBL Tim McGraw Artist Series headphones. The TMG 81 on-ear headphones are the model that McGraw prefers for their lightweight comfort, wide dynamic range, exceptional bass, and frequency response that's tuned to his preferences. JBL also offers an in-ear version of those headphones—the TMG 21 model—which provide the same performance characteristics in a compact, comfortable package with a noise-isolation design that makes them perfect for use with an iPod or other portable music playback device.
"When I found out that Harman/JBL was doing a headphone project I wanted to get involved," says McGraw. "It's a great product, and Harman is a great company with a lot of great people associated with them, so I thought it was a good match. The headphones sound great and look cool. Even my daughters are using them at home, although they'd never get caught using something with their dad's name on it in public."
McGraw is currently in the studio working on his upcoming untitled album, the 12th studio effort of his career. This summer he's going on a blockbuster tour with co-headliner Kenny Chesney, which is certain to break box office records. But even though McGraw has achieved more over the last 20 years than most artists achieve in a lifetime, he says he's only getting started.
"I still want to get better," he admits. "I really feel like I'm just getting started. Everything else that I've done up until now has been like an education. I'm finally starting to figure out what it is that I do and how I do it. I think I have more ahead of me than behind me."