Tim McGraw's fans know him as country-western icon, part-time movie star, and husband of Faith Hill. But few realize just how fierce the demons were that stood in his way.
Credit: Photograph by by Nick Leary

The Smithsonian should box and preserve Tim McGraw's Nashville den for a future exhibit entitled "Early 21st Century American Man Cave." There's a cell phone that recently flashed a text reading, "I'm a Viking. Call you later. Brett." His father Tug's 1980 World Series Championship trophy sits on a desk. Above the fireplace is a framed American flag from his Navy vet grandfather. There are photos of his three daughters and Faith Hill, his wife. You may have heard of her.

McGraw has something else he wants to show me. Hanging off the back of his lounge chair is a tattered piece of blue fabric resembling an overgrown dish towel. "I've had that blanket since I was 13," says McGraw, dressed in khaki shorts, a faded T-shirt, and a Tennessee Titans cap. He gives his Rosebud an affectionate rub. "There's been a lot of ups and downs in life, good and bad. This blanket has been through it all."

It's a stark, vulnerable statement from a once hard-drinking, punch-throwing country music icon, a man rarely photographed without his black cowboy hat. He places the blanket back on the chair carefully. Without looking up, he says, "My life has been one long dichotomy."

The happy part, you know. McGraw has 30 number one country singles and 11 number one country albums. He's married to Hill, a patient and sweet woman with 13 number one singles herself. They are the First Couple of Red-State America and print money faster than a Waffle House next to an LSU fraternity. Their joint tour in 2006-2007 was the most lucrative multi-year country tour ever, grossing $142 million.

Life is good at McGraw-Hill Industries. The couple is building a new home on its own island in the Bahamas and a new primary residence outside Nashville that has taken five years to complete. ("You drive up to the house and it looks like Europe," marvels Betty Trimble, McGraw's mother.) McGraw's best friend Hooter brings him a different car to drive every week. ("I like a little variety," he explains.) And McGraw has a new record out called 'Southern Voice' and is co-starring as Sandra Bullock's husband in The Blind Side, his second movie about football, a consuming passion.

The couple's success allows them to have mild debates in their kitchen on whether they should fire up the family jet (McGraw is a licensed pilot) and take their daughters to Madison Square Garden so they can see Taylor Swift perform. Today, Mrs. McGraw is wearing little makeup, a peasant blouse, white pants, and Chuck Taylors. She is shy and small in person but clearly runs this show. "I don't know if we can get back in time for the girls' school," says Hill. She pours a Coke for a visitor, waiting for the fizz to die down so she can top it off.

Her husband thinks for a moment and responds carefully. "Well, I'm not saying we should or shouldn't go. I'm just saying we have the option of going."

Hill tables the conversation, gives her husband a peck, and heads off to see a friend. McGraw settles back into his recliner and chuckles. "With women you just give options and they make the decisions. I grew up in a house with just my mom and two sisters. Now I live in a house with my wife, my daughters, a female maid – and my assistant is a woman. I'm just the figurehead king. And I love it."

But now that house is empty and quiet. Outside, rain falls and the sky thunders. And I sense a change in McGraw, too. There's an unmistakable air of melancholy behind his good ol' boyness. He is 42, standing in the middle of life. He recently quit drinking. That's no small thing for a man whose earliest childhood memory is sitting in a Louisiana honky-tonk, watching the band set up, while his grandma, the bar manager, cleaned up. He sometimes finds himself onstage, stone-cold sober, wondering about his chosen profession.

"At times, you think, Is this silly?" says McGraw. His den is devoid of music-career mementos. "I'm a 42-year-old man jumping around with 16-year-old girls screaming at me. There are times when you think that you look like a clown."

I ask if he shares these doubts with his wife and fellow performer. He smiles and shakes his head. "No, I don't want her to think I think like that." He admits he doesn't talk about these issues with her as much as he should. "She's very patient with me. I don't let her in on my thought processes enough." He adjusts his blanket and shrugs his broad shoulders. "I'm trying to get better. I think sometimes she forgets because we live in a house of women and I have to say, 'I'm a guy. We don't talk about everything.' "

Booze, cigarettes, and fast cars have killed many a country music hero. Tim McGraw has quit two of them. He's taking his customized Dodge Charger out to his 900-acre farm in Franklin, Tennessee. It's a trip that should take an hour, but he does it in 30 minutes. "This car has a siren, so when we get police escorts on the road I can just jump right in," says McGraw. "Faith hates that I drive fast, but she drives fast too."

Probably not this fast. He leans into a winding country road, floors it, and the Charger hits 130. He shuts it down right before a hairpin curve. "This has 700 horsepower," he shouts over the engine. "A NASCAR car has 800, but I don't have a restrictor plate."

Around the next bend is Xanadu as family farm. McGraw maneuvers the Charger past the main house and barn, past the quarter horses, past the field where he set up a 'Lawrence of Arabia'-style tent for a romantic dinner and movie for his 10th anniversary with his wife three years ago. ("My wife loves foreign films," says McGraw. "But I can't remember what it was. We didn't watch a lot of the movie, if you know what I mean.") We continue past the skeet-shooting range he's upgrading so his buddy Bobby can train for the Olympics, and past the fishing pond he sometimes stocks with rainbow trout just for fun. ("They get to be nine and 10 pounds, but they die off when the winter comes.")

McGraw parks next to a black barn that holds a dealership's worth of motorcycles and automobiles. There's a $50,000 Confederate Hellcat bike that his pal Brett Favre gave McGraw on his 40th birthday. "That goes from 0 to 100 in 3.1 seconds. It can get out from under you quick. I know from experience."

McGraw gives a man hug to Ricky Hooter, a slender fellow in a weather-beaten cap. He's been McGraw's best friend since they met at the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 1985.

"Hooter, Hooter, where's the cooter?" drawls McGraw.

Hooter watches over the cars, supervises the farm, and provides McGraw with male company and a hunting companion when he gets squirrelly in his estrogen-rich domestic life. Hooter is a Rush Limbaugh fanatic, while McGraw keeps a giant Obama sign in his garage. They used to argue politics until the whiskey was gone. Hooter rests his rough hands on a black 1967 Plymouth Satellite. Most of McGraw's cars are classics; the Satellite seems out of place. McGraw speaks up.

"That car's Hooter's."

Hooter shyly tells the story. "My great-grandfather told my daddy when he was 16, 'Go into town and buy a car.' He bought this one. It sat for years on our farm until I was 13, and then he got it for me. I used to race it when we were in college and blew out the transmission. I didn't have any money, so we parked it in another roommate's barn for 15 years. Then Tim calls me one day and says, 'I got a new car.' And I'm like, 'Another?' But when he pulled up I said, 'That's not your car.' "

"I took it and got it completely restored," says McGraw proudly, clearly reveling in playing Papa Bear. "I gave it to Hooter, and he couldn't talk to me for two weeks because he thought he would start crying."

Hooter nods a little and stifles a mock whimper. "Please talk amongst yourselves."

McGraw switches to a Jeep and floors it down a dusty trail. He pauses at a shiny grave marker for his hunting dog Fleetwood, who died last year. He then drives across a sleepy creek. "Hank Williams used to own the farm," he says, pulling the Jeep to a stop. "One day, Hooter and I were dove hunting and a tour bus pulled up. It was Hank Williams Jr. He said he was driving by and wanted to see the old family place. The legend is that his daddy bet someone he could jump over this creek, hurt his back, and then died a few weeks later. I don't know if it's true, but it's a hell of a story."

McGraw is mindful of his country history, and at times he's overwhelmed with the thought that he doesn't measure up. I bring up an oft-repeated complaint that he rarely leaves his comfort zone musically, and he tartly responds, "I think I go outside the lines more than anyone I know in my genre. I did 'Red Rag Top' [about a couple having an abortion] and I did 'Stars Go Blue' [a Ryan Adams song]."

McGraw doesn't write many of his own songs, but he picks them carefully. From his 1992 breakthrough "Indian Outlaw," a song that pissed off Native American groups for its 'F Troop' take on their community; continuing with the irritatingly repetitive "I Like It, I Love It," played to death on 'Monday Night Football'; to the recent "It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You," about as clever as its title – his singles have largely been audio Velveeta. But his album tracks are markedly tougher, doing justice to the Merle Haggard line that "country songs are the dreams of the working man."

Like many megastars, McGraw is now caught between giving the people what they want and doing what he wants. His reluctance to tinker with his winning formula is partially tied to a deeper insecurity. "I find so much fault in myself, it's hard for me to condemn others for their faults. If I have to fire someone, I first think, I'm a fuckup; I don't deserve what I have. How can I fire someone? It's resulted in me getting run over a lot in business." McGraw says it isn't a secret where the feelings come from. "I was a nervous, scared poor boy who shook all the time and got beat up. It doesn't leave you feeling confident."