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A Country Giant's New Track

With 40 million albums sold, Tim McGraw reshapes his career.


NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Tim McGraw is playing air guitar. As the country music star strums his thigh in a Nashville recording studio, he's flanked by hired guns from Los Angeles—Paul McCartney's guitarist, the keyboard player from Foo Fighters—who just laid down the music blaring from the speakers. "Evil," a slinky rock-'n'-roll song, sounds like something from the Rolling Stones' disco period. Mr. McGraw hasn't ditched his twang, however. On deck for the recording session: a number called "Bartenders and Guitar Benders."

Tim McGraw, New York, 2009.
.With some 40 million albums sold during a nearly 20-year career, Mr. McGraw is one of country music's most commercially successful acts. Like much of his industry, he's been doing some soul-searching lately. Earlier this year, he went outside Nashville to overhaul his operation, hiring a manager best known for steering rockers such as the Dave Matthews Band and Phish. He clashed with his long-time record label over the timing of his new album, "Southern Voice," which is being released next week—three years after he recorded it. He's teaming up with a growing crop of corporate sponsors, including Gillette and Outback Steakhouse.

For Mr. McGraw, who's worked both sides of the music industry's boom and bust, reshaping his team is an effort to avoid a career plateau. "It becomes harder to find places to move up because the road's narrower," he says.

Just Asking...Tim McGraw
Read a Q&A with the country singer
.Mr. McGraw is doing things he wouldn't have predicted a few years ago, from cutting tracks like "Evil" to stepping up his self-promotion. When he appeared twice on David Letterman's show this week, the host pointed out that 12 years had passed since the singer's last visit.

Country hasn't swerved much from the themes of heartland, honky-tonks and heartbreak. The songs in heaviest rotation on country radio last week included "Small Town USA" (Justin Moore), "Cowboy Cassanova" (Carrie Underwood) and "Big Green Tractor" (Jason Aldean). Behind the music, however, Nashville is grappling with big changes.

When album sales started crashing across the music industry around 2001, the tailspin was more gradual in country, where listeners were slower to abandon the album format. But the side effects of the digital shift are catching up with the genre. Last year, while overall album sales dropped 14%, country sales fell 24%, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Only classical music saw a steeper decline.) So far this year, with country album sales off by just 1%, record labels and retailers are hoping they have hit bottom.

The ripple effects are obvious on Nashville's Music Row. The area has been the industry's geographic nerve center since the 1950s, when New York labels established beachheads here. The neighborhood is dotted with congratulatory banners, such as one celebrating Darius Rucker, the Hootie & the Blowfish frontman who recently splashed over into country with a hit album. But a crop of "For Rent" signs tells a different story.

"This is almost last man standing. Whoever is still in business in Nashville has figured out a way to stay in business," says Dennis Hannon, general manager of Curb Records, Mr. McGraw's label since his 1993 debut.

A native of Louisiana, Mr. McGraw dropped out of college and moved to Nashville in 1989 with little more in the way of furniture than a rectangle of foam rubber to sleep on, he says. Before getting a record deal, he played downtown stages, including Skull's Rainbow Room, a club frequented by strippers who worked in the seedy Printers Alley.

Though his self-titled debut album made little impact, Mr. McGraw's follow-up became a top seller, fueled in part by the controversy around a single titled "Indian Outlaw," whose lyrics some American Indians found offensive. A steady run of commercial hits followed. Songs like 1995's "I Like It, I Love It," made Mr. McGraw known for a driving dancehall sound with pop polish. That blend helped him hold onto core country fans while capturing some of the broad radio appeal of Garth Brooks.

In 1996, he married fellow star Faith Hill, and a joint concert tour by the couple in 2006 stands as the highest grossing tour in country music to date. Mr. McGraw has also nurtured a Hollywood career, including a role in a Sandra Bullock movie opening in November.

.In the past few years, however, Mr. McGraw has been restless. Since 2007's "Let It Go," which has sold 1.5 million copies to date, his releases have been limited to old material, including a third collection of greatest hits, as well as "limited edition" and "collector's edition" versions of previous volumes. Curb Records kept "Southern Voice" waiting on the shelf, riling Mr. McGraw.

The release of "Greatest Hits Vol. 3" last fall prompted a press release from the singer, who said, "The whole concept is an embarrassment to me as an artist." Elaborating in an interview, he says, "I didn't want people to think I was out there doing a money grab. Here are the same songs you've bought, so let's sell them to you two or three more times."

Mr. Hannon says, "When you have a 20-year relationship, there are going to be times that you don't see eye to eye. The bottom line is we're still in business together." After "Southern Voice," Mr. McGraw owes Curb one more album on his contract.

The lead single from "Southern Voice" was "It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You," a jokey riff on a wallet-emptying relationship. It got lukewarm radio play when it was released in July. Much of the album is somber. The singer imagines how he'd be remembered in "If I Died Today," which features a melancholy electric guitar line.

At age 42, Mr. McGraw says, "Me singing about country boys and girls getting down on the farm doesn't ring true after a certain point." He and Ms. Hill have three daughters, ages 12, 11 and 7.

Now, Mr. McGraw is branching out. He recruited L.A. musicians like guitarist Rusty Anderson and keyboardist Rami Jaffee for a three-day recording session last week, after using his touring band, the Dancehall Doctors, on his last four albums. It's uncertain whether "Evil" will end up on the singer's next album, which he hopes to release next year. "I'm identifiable now. You know it's my voice, for better or worse, so I can cut a wide variety of songs," Mr. McGraw says. One constant is the influence of the classic rock and country of his boyhood. "Keep it '70s!" he called out to his producer as they prepared for another take on "Evil."

Earlier this year, Mr. McGraw parted on good terms, he says, with his long-time manager, Scott Siman, "to find someone who didn't think the way I thought."

He surprised some on Music Row by signing with Red Light Management, based in Charlottesville, Va., whose stable of about 90 artists skews toward rock and roots acts like Good Charlotte and Damian Marley. The company is led by Coran Capshaw, a 51-year-old music manager and entrepreneur whose ventures include a brewery, the Five Guys hamburger chain and music festivals like Bonnaroo.

.Starting in 1991, Mr. Capshaw helped turn the Dave Matthews Band into one of music's most successful touring acts, in part by nurturing fans with now-common practices like bundling merchandise with ticket purchases. Mr. Capshaw now personally manages Mr. McGraw, as well as Mr. Matthews and the rock band Phish.

This week, a few hundred of Mr. McGraw's fans—most of them female—crowded into the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of "Late Show With David Letterman." Right after Mr. McGraw's back-to-back Letterman tapings, CBS staged a concert for the fans, who had been sent invitations via the singer's revamped fan club and Web site. CBS streamed the concert live on the Web, simulcast it to CBS radio stations and sprinkled clips into the network's TV schedule.

On stage, Mr. McGraw wore tight jeans, a black cowboy hat and a 1980 World Series ring that his father, famed relief pitcher Tug McGraw, gave him just before he died in 2004. Mr. McGraw bracketed some hits, such as a song associated with his father, "Live Like You Were Dying," with songs from his new album. "Aretha Franklin sold it, Dolly Parton graced it, Rosa Parks rode it, Scarlett O chased it," he sang in the album's title anthem, "Southern Voice."

Despite shakeups to the country business, its lower rungs are still firm in Nashville. Live music revs up before noon on Broadway, the city's neon-lit spine of honky-tonk bars, where bands churn out standards like Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" countless times each day.

The Country Music Association, a Nashville trade group, recently recruited a Chicago marketing firm to survey the country audience and find ways to expand it. Last April, the CMA delivered initial findings at a town hall meeting for its members, where the presentation included a slide headed, "Demographically, some—but not all—stereotypes confirmed." Among the survey results: 68% of country fans are between 30 and 54 years old; 69% are white; 58% earn less than $50,000 annually. More surprising was the finding that only about half of core country listeners have an Internet connection at home.

This is forcing Nashville to court two very different customers: the core buyers who still purchase CDs at stores like Wal-Mart, and the growing number of listeners who cherry-pick tracks online. The number of top country songs swapped on file-sharing networks spiked 52% in the past year, while activity in most genres was largely flat, according to the monitoring firm BigChampagne.

These days, the artist dominating the conversation in Nashville is 19-year-old singer Taylor Swift, who broke out in 2006 with a summery track titled "Tim McGraw." ("When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think my favorite song, the one we danced to all night long.") Unlike stars such as Shania Twain, who first won over country fans and then crossed over to pop, she has had a broad fan-base from the start that includes both country and pop fans.

One factor in her rise: Ms. Swift's early use of online tools such as MySpace. While young country acts such as Blake Shelton, Craig Morgan and Randy Houser are flocking to networks like Twitter to feed information to fans, many country veterans view such over-sharing with suspicion.

Mr. McGraw is among them. "As far as I'm concerned, there's a two-mile no Twitter zone around me," Mr. McGraw says. "The reason [the music experience] works is it's a vicarious thing. You go to a movie and you picture yourself on screen. You go to a concert and you picture yourself on stage. If you're too involved, all the magic's gone."

Write to John Jurgensen at

-- Edited by twain2country on Friday 16th of October 2009 07:24:29 AM

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