More than 25 years since he signed his first record deal, the world has come to a consensus. Tim McGraw is a purveyor of some damn good country music.
The proof is in the numbers for the superstar, who has racked up 10 No. 1 albums and 25 No. 1 singles. The latest, “Humble and Kind,” comes from his 14th studio album “Damn Country,” which he released in November.
McGraw will bring his heartfelt heartland sound to Harveys Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena on Saturday.
Despite his success, the performer tries to maintain perspective. As he urges listeners in “Humble and Kind”: “When the dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you/When the work you put in is realized/Let yourself feel the pride but/Always stay humble and kind.”
The hit, penned by Lori McKenna, was described by Rolling Stone as reading “like a parent’s letter to a child who’s about to fly the coop, with the protagonist compiling a list of important life lessons.”
It can also be taken as McGraw’s autobiography.
Take the third verse: “Don’t expect a free ride from no one/Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why/Bitterness keeps you from flying/Always stay humble and kind.”
The power of forgiveness
Understanding the power of forgiveness can be a hard-won lesson, but it’s one McGraw learned early on.
For his first 17 years, his father — the late MLB pitcher Tug McGraw — refused to acknowledge his paternity. He was conceived when his mother Betty had a brief relationship with Tug, then a minor league player with the Jacksonville Suns.
Betty moved to Louisiana, where Tim was born and raised. Until he was 11, he thought his step-dad was his real father. Then, he stumbled across his birth certificate and, after his mom came clean, he began campaigning to see his birth father.
Betty reached out to Tug, who was then a pitcher for the Phillies, and the athlete invited Tim to come out to a game. Meeting his famous father represented a magic moment for the boy, but he wouldn’t see him for another seven years.
After he graduated from high school, McGraw reached out to Tug, asking him to chip in for college. He agreed on the stipulation that Betty and Tim never contact him again. The teen asked to see Tug one more time and when the athlete caught sight of 18-year-old Tim, by then his spitting image, he admitted he was his son.
McGraw went on to forge a strong relationship with his father and was inspired to record his No. 1 hit “Live Like You Were Dying!” when Tug was dying of cancer.
McGraw explained his willingness to forgive and forget in a 1994 Philly Daily News story. ”Regrets, sure; everyone has regrets,” he said. “But we understand the deal: People who live in the past have no future. Things have worked out A-OK.”
And despite the years of denial, Tug ended up playing a role in his son’s success.
McGraw studied pre-law at Northeast Louisiana State University, but spent more time honing his budding music skills than attending classes. He had long been a fan of country musicians like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard and had honed his vocal chops in the church choir. Now in possession of a pawn-shop guitar, he taught himself some chords and was soon performing at clubs near campus.
After a year, he decided to quit school and move to Nashville, seeking his country music fortune. He gave a copy of his demo tape to his dad and Tug happened to be playing it when a buddy acquainted with Curb Records Execs was riding with him. The friend recommended Tim to the label and he was off and running.
Keeping the Faith
McGraw’s self-titled debut scored a few minor hits: “Welcome to the Club,” “Memory Lane,” “Two Steppin Mind” and the cheekily-titled “What Room Was the Holiday In?” It was his sophomore effort, “Not a Moment Too Soon,” however, that brought him fame.
The record became the top-selling country album of 1994. In 1996, he joined with Faith Hill for their “Spontaneous Combustion” tour. True to the show’s name, sparks flew between the two musicians and they were married in October of that year.
The ceremony was just the first of many duets between the spouses that would delight country fans, including the songs “It’s Your Love,” “Like We Never Loved At All,” “Let’s Make Love,” “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” ‘I Need You” and “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me.”
McGraw, now 49, took a pause from duets with his usual partner while recording “Damn Country Music” when he teamed up with his eldest daughter for the single “Here Tonight.” Gracie, now 19, joined him on stage when he debuted the song at a Nashville gig.
McGraw may have broken tradition by singing with Gracie, considering she helms a punk band. For the most part, though, “Damn Country” is a playbook for roots-rich country music. As he sings in “How I’ll Always Be,” even as things change, they stay the same: “I’ll always be a fan of old stray dogs and guitars praying/One-room churches, back road walks and front porch-swingin’/Sunset skies, bonfire nights, I love the simple things/That’s how I’ll always be.”
Longtime fans are used to welcoming additional material by McGraw to their sing-along list, but still love to hear oldies like the unabashedly romantic “Not A Moment Too Soon.” They needn’t worry that the performer will stick to the new stuff, though, as he explained in a 2013 Arizona Republic interview.
“I’ve got to remember what music does for me when I listen to my favorite songs that I’ve heard over the years, songs that sort of mark time in my life. That’s what music does,” he said. “So, when you’re performing, you have to remember that what you do in your songs will make people remember times in their lives. It creates memories for them. So you have to remember you’re doing them for the fans.”