Tim McGraw laughs when his song “Keep on Truckin'” is praised (albeit tongue-in-cheek) as being the key to silencing the many recent critics of truck songs. Its carefree lyrics champion chins up in hard times, without a single mention of tailgating, off-roading, Daisy Duke-clad passengers… or even a truck, for that matter. But the country star shies from taking the compliment.
“It’s all about not having to think too much, just have a good time. But it’s got some gravitas to the lyrics, as well,” he tells Rolling Stone Country of the song he co-wrote with Blair Daly, Brad Warren and Brett Warren, which is by no means his answer to country music’s ever-cresting wave of truck songs. “Artists should make the kind of music you want to make. I don’t think what’s happening, what’s not happening, what people think should dictate what you do as an artist. You have to be honest about your music and make the best record you can for yourself, and hopefully that will connect with everybody else.”
“Truckin'” is one of many concert-ready tracks off the singer’s brand-new Sundown Heaven Town album (out today). In fact, McGraw road-tested almost half the LP on tour this summer — months before the LP’s release, as there is one trend he will follow: abandoning the old lock-and-key mentality of keeping everything but the first single secret before an album’s street date.
“Everybody buys singles — more than they do albums anymore. It’s a way to lead up to the album and give them a glimpse of what’s coming,” explains McGraw. “It’s nice to get out there and play new stuff. When you’re designing a set list, when [a new song] falls in with the songs that are hits and still feels like you’re playing a hit, then that’s what it feels like when a song is going to work.”
One of those fan pre-approved songs is the album opener, “Overrated,” which perks ears with its first few seconds of a slow, acoustic banjo that bleed into an uptempo, infectious drum beat. The eventually guitar-driven tune, which denounces worry about “keeping up with the Jones,” works as bookends for Sundown Heaven Town, as that same mellow banjo picker is heard at the very end of the standard, 13-track version of the album. With its marriage of different sonic styles coupled with what-matters-most lyrics, “Overrated” is singled out by McGraw as the song that sets the tone for the entire album. On one hand, it’s as modern as today’s boundary-pushing terrestrial radio, and on the other, it could’ve been a track off one of the Louisiana native’s platinum-selling albums from the Nineties. The singer says finding that balance is somewhat of a happy coincidence.
“I just try to find songs that move me. Then I go into the studio and we all try to be inventive, come up with different sounds that try to fit the mood,” he explains of the tried-and-true recording strategy that has carried his nearly quarter century-long career. “Hopefully that falls into something that’s fresh and modern, but sounds familiar at the same time.”
Again… something that already feels like a hit.
Sundown‘s first single, the hip-hop-tinged “Looking for That Girl” (which namechecks both Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” and Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina”), was just barely a hit. It was yanked from the airwaves after a few weeks, in favor of the more critic-proof “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” featuring McGraw’s wife of 18 years, Faith Hill. The decision had more to do with the success of the latter song than the polarizing nature of the former, as “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” was released just after the power couple made a dazzling debut of the duet at the ACM Awards. McGraw could have predicted it would strike such a powerful chord.
“When I first heard it, I was picking up one of the kids from school and drove back home and played it for Faith right away,” he recalls. “At the last line of the song, she teared up. I knew I was going to record it right away, and when she did that I knew we were both going to record it.”
Other vocal collaborators on the project include Kid Rock on a bonus track from the deluxe edition of the album, the cleverly infectious “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” and McGraw’s first cousin, singer-songwriter Catherine Dunn, on an old-school heartache song, “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools.” “I knew I wanted her to sing on it; her voice would fit perfectly,” McGraw says of Dunn. “She went in and in 10 minutes, knocked it out.”
Cue the family band. In fact, McGraw and Hill’s three daughters are all budding singers, as well. His youngest, 13-year-old Audrey, is now a YouTube sensation, thanks to her recent, jaw-dropping cover of the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier,” captured by a fan at a special VIP party before one of her dad’s shows.
“She’s not going to do anything until she finishes school,” McGraw says emphatically. “But it’s awesome for her to get out and do that. She’d done some things at school, but never in front of people out of her comfortable environment. I was surprised she wanted to do it, and she nailed it.”
A listen through Sundown Heaven Town, and it’s evident that home and family are conscious themes weaved throughout. The love songs, such as “Shotgun Rider” and “City Lights,” evoke images of McGraw and Hill’s storied romance, while tunes such as “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” and the similarly nostalgic “Last Turn Home” reflect his small-town, family-focused roots. And for that, McGraw will accept the compliment.
“I love being home around my wife and my kids, seeing their lives progress, seeing them grow and get more confident every day,” he says. “It’s a struggle to get me off the hill when I’m at home.”