McGraw keeps close tabs on Mom because for most of his life she's all he had. McGraw was raised in Start, Louisiana, a farming town about four hours from New Orleans. Until he was 11, he thought he was the only son of Betty and Horace Smith, Betty's first husband. Betty was a waitress and Horace was a truck driver. He'd sometimes take Tim on long-haul trips, during which McGraw first heard country stalwarts like Haggard and Charley Pride.
But Horace had a mean streak, and he started beating on Tim before his stepson learned to walk. He beat on Betty, too, but Horace seemed to have a special vicious side reserved for his son. When he was 11, Tim found out why. While looking for baby pictures for a school project, Tim stumbled across his birth certificate in a closet. Typed under "father" was the name Samuel Timothy McGraw, with "Tug" scrawled in parentheses. His occupation was listed as baseball player.
Tim more than recognized Tug's name; he was a baseball nut and had his father's baseball card from the Phillies tacked on his wall next to those of Pete Rose and George Brett. He called his mom at the restaurant where she waitressed. She got off work early, drove home, and found her son in tears. She explained to him that she had met Tug in Jacksonville, Florida, while he was pitching for a Mets minor league team. Betty lost her virginity to him and soon found herself pregnant. Her mother called Tug, who denied he was the father. Betty moved to Louisiana the next year and met Horace, who agreed to raise Tim as his own.
Tim pressed his mom to meet his real dad, who by then was married with two other children. Eventually, an arrangement was made for Tim and his mom to make the six-hour drive to Houston the next time the Phillies were in town. Though Tug was friendly, he told Tim, "I can't be a father to you, but I can be a friend... From now on, just say we're friends." He then showed Tim around the Astrodome. "I think at that point I was just so excited about meeting him that I didn't think about the words he was saying," says McGraw. Tim asked his mom if he could change his last name to McGraw, but that didn't make him any more accepted by his dad.
"In 1980, I was watching the Phillies in the World Series with my best friend Lance," remembers McGraw. "After the game, Tug was in the locker room, covered in champagne, and he said, 'I want to say hello to my children, Mark and Carrie.' I collapsed on the couch and then went to bed. I just left Lance sitting there."
Even after that, Tim would periodically write or call up the Phillies office and leave messages for Tug. He never received a call back. Tim, a three-sport star, went through high school hoping his father would turn up at one of his games or at his 1985 graduation. It didn't happen. He got a music scholarship to the University of Louisiana at Monroe but still needed money for living expenses, so he urged his mom to contact his dad. Tug finally said he'd provide some financial support and meet with Tim again if Tim agreed never to contact him after that. Through Tug's lawyer, a meeting was set up in a Houston hotel, but the moment that Tim walked into the room, Tug saw the resemblance in his now grown son, and soon the wall crumbled.
After that, Tim would visit his father in Philly a couple of times a year and bask in being recognized as Tug's son. But Tim was starting to earn some recognition of his own. A lousy student ("I majored in fraternity"), he started playing at open-mic nights around Monroe. He built up a repertoire of 50 country covers. In 1989, he dropped out of school and moved to Nashville to try his luck at singing for a living. He took a copy of his demo to country label Curb Records, which signed him to a contract. He's been with the label since, though the relationship hasn't always been a pleasant one: Southern Voice was recorded two years ago but was held back when Curb released a Greatest Hits 3 against Tim's wishes.
As Tim's fame grew and Tug's receded, the two would hang out two or three times a year, sharing beers, and now it was Tim bailing Tug out of financial straits. "A lot of the times, it was like I was the father, he was the son," McGraw says. After Tug developed brain cancer, Tim and Faith watched over his final days on their farm. Five years later, Tim's eyes still fill with tears when talking about the conversation they never had.
"When he was dying, I remember sitting there, waiting for him to say something, apologize, but he never did," says McGraw. "I got to know him, and I realized he wasn't capable."
Last year, Tim was asked to toss out the first pitch at a Phillies World Series game and decided to spread some of his dad's ashes on the mound. It didn't go exactly as planned. "As I was walking to the mound, the top of the container came off, and Tug's ashes fell out in my pocket. I was trying to put them back, but then I just emptied my pocket as quick as I could."
McGraw laughs, but he is still haunted by a father denying he was his kin for so long. For years, drinking helped Tim mask the pain. But his underlying anger still surfaced and no doubt played a part in all the brawling he did early in his career, tussling with loudmouths at his honky-tonk shows. "If there were less than three of them, I knew he'd be okay," says Darran Smith, his lead guitarist for two decades. McGraw will still yank misbehaving male fans out of the audience on occasion if he thinks they are mistreating a lady – a byproduct of watching his mom get beat up by his stepdad all those years.
He finally quit drinking last year, on his own, when he realized it was threatening to turn him into an absentee father just like his own. "My wife sometimes says I'm a lot like Tug, and it's not always a compliment," he says. "I wasn't 28 anymore. I had to grow up. I want to be home every night. I want to take my kids to school. That's what's important to me. Once I realized that, it was clear what I had to do."
His new album features the unsubtly titled "You Had to Be There," a potentially classic country weeper about a no-show dad. "I've forgiven him and made my peace with it," says McGraw. "But the older you get, the more that kind of stuff gets in your kitchen."
McGraw goes quiet for one of the few times during our time together. Then his face lights up with a realization.
"The thing is, knowing he was my dad, finding out my father was a millionaire baseball player, changed my life completely. I went from being this scared kid who didn't think he could do anything to something else. It changed the possibility of who I could be. He didn't intentionally give that to me, but he gave it to me."