Tim McGraw's companion in "Shotgun Rider" isn't the only one singing along to the radio. During a headlining show in Nashville last Saturday night, McGraw offered his own rendition of one of his favorite new songs, Chris Janson's "Buy Me a Boat," with help from the Top 10 country newcomer himself.
From the second McGraw welcomed him to the stage, Janson was electric and confident, as if Nashville's Bridgestone Arena was merely the biggest honky-tonk on Lower Broadway. McGraw, who'd kicked off his show with "Truck Yeah" — a song that Janson co-wrote in 2012 — sang the first verse alone before heading to a corner of the stage and letting his friend take the spotlight. The two swapped lyrics and and high-fives throughout the performance, and they overlapped in their fashion, too, with both singers wearing Waylon Jennings T-shirts.
This being Nashville, more surprises were on deck. In the spirit of Janson's song, McGraw brought a fan's family on stage to award them with both a brand new boat and truck. He also gave away a home to a deserving veteran in partnership with Operation Homefront and Chase Bank. Finally, he shone a light on his own family, with a big chunk of the evening's special guests being members of the McGraw clan. His cousin, Catherine Dunn, reprised her powerful vocals during a live version of "Diamond Rings and Old Barstools," while his daughter, Gracie, sang harmony on "Here Tonight," a seize-the-day anthem that the two have already recorded for McGraw's upcoming album. Finally, Faith Hill stepped out for the ever-romantic "It's Your Love." She was visibly overwhelmed by the enormous response, but bowed out gracefully after one song. After that, McGraw paused to thank his wife, family, fans and country radio supporters before launching into "Shotgun Rider," the biggest hit from his 2014 album, Sundown Heaven Town.
Throughout the night, McGraw dug deep into his catalog for Nineties hits like "For a Little While" and "Where the Green Grass Grows," sprinkling those songs into a set that also featured recent cuts like "One of Those Nights" and his brand new single, "Top of the World." Chase Bryant, the first opening act of the night, returned to the stage for a few lines of "Felt Good on My Lips," and Billy Currington, the show's other opener, followed suit with "I Like It, I Love It." For the encore, McGraw chose an Elton John cover ("Tiny Dancer"), an oddball album cut ("Mexicoma") and two classics ("Indian Outlaw" and "Live Like You Were Dying").
Backstage before the concert, McGraw personally greeted songwriters, reporters and industry friends at a private party celebrating the four-week Number One success of "Shotgun Rider," a song written by Troy Verges, Hillary Lindsey and Marv Green. Before the plaque presentations, he told Rolling Stone Country that after hearing the song's demo, he knew exactly how to approach the studio session with longtime producer Byron Gallimore.
"It reminded me of the evening in the summertime when the sun is setting on the lake and it's sort of shimmering," he said of "Shotgun Rider." "That's what I wanted to record to sound like, and that's what it feels like to me when we play it live."
Asked about progress of his upcoming album, McGraw revealed that he's almost ready to turn it into his label, Big Machine Records. He needs to tweak a few of his singing parts first, though, then decide which songs will make the final cut. No release date has been set.
Because the ballot to decide this year's CMA Awards finalists was sent out last week, one of the executives during the pre-party encouraged the audience to cast their vote for McGraw. It was an unmistakably Nashville moment, for better or worse.
"The best part of playing in Nashville is just the love that you feel because everybody loves music so much — and all the artists and all the people in the business that are out there. The worst part is all the people that are in the business that are out there!" McGraw told Rolling Stone Country with a laugh. "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all of the time. You certainly can't fool this crowd."
That doesn't mean you can't keep the crowd guessing, though. Supported by loyal, longtime fans who often attend multiple shows, McGraw doesn't like to give the same performance twice. He told Rolling Stone Country that he and bandleader Denny Hemingson encourage variety and surprises by revising the set list before each new tour begins.
"That's the toughest part of putting a tour together because, gosh, there’s probably 15 Number One records we're not playing," he noted. "But you've got to look at what you've done in the last couple of years and you want to try to create an ebb and flow. You can't just slam all the time. You have to have a part in the middle where you sort of relax and let everybody catch their breath, so you can build up to the end. It's just finding the right combination of songs."
Although he said he pretty much relies on instinct, McGraw added, "You never know for sure how it's going to work until you play in front of a live crowd. Most of the time we've been dead on. We haven't changed it much. A few times we've trimmed it, and added something here or there. [Because] if you don't do that, or you're not paying attention, you can get in trouble."
However, if you do get it right, you can buy a boat.