The Redemption of Tim McGraw

Mj 618_348_the redemption of tim mcgraw
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.”

“Let’s see if my mom is home,” says McGraw, driving over to a lone small house on the property. He raps on the door, but there’s no answer. “She and my stepfather have a shack down in Georgia where they like to go. Give my stepfather some Crown Royal and his shack and he’s a happy man. I wonder where Mom’s at?”

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.”

The Tennessee sky is now clear. The band is playing. The Friday-night lights shine bright. Kids toss footballs and play tag behind the stands. It’s the first game for Franklin High School, just outside of Nashville. Tim’s nephew Matt is the starting right tackle, and the family has turned out for his first varsity game. While their kids play behind the goalposts with friends, Tim and Faith sit on the 50-yard line surrounded by Tim’s mom, his two sisters, brothers-in-law, and a half-dozen nieces and nephews. He is wearing the same faded T-shirt and khaki shorts from the day before. McGraw has lost much of his hair up top, a fact he doesn’t really hide around his close friends, but tonight his Titans cap is anchored tightly to his head. Many in the crowd are on nodding-acquaintance basis with the couple, so they try not to gawk. The only autograph seekers are two six-year-olds. One shyly whispers through baby teeth that she was born in Mississippi, just like Faith.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s great,” says Faith. “Tell your momma I said hello.”

Tim has a big grin on his face. He scans the bench for his nephew. Last year McGraw worked the chain at the games at his daughters’ school until he found himself badgering the refs too much. “Maybe it’s better I didn’t have a son. I bark at these kids a lot, and they’re not even my sons.” The setting makes McGraw nostalgic for his high school years. “I was a receiver, and every game I’d drop the first pass; I was nervous. But after that I was fine.”

He then tells a story about his role in 2004’s ‘Friday Night Lights.’ “The first scene I filmed was me hungover the day after I punched my kid. I was so nervous the night before, I stayed out drinking. That hangover isn’t an act.”

The movie’s climactic scene features McGraw looking for his fullback son on the field of the Astrodome after a heartbreaking loss in the state finals. In a long tracking shot, McGraw’s face is contorted with pain never before expressed. He finds his son, embraces him, and gives him his own state championship ring. It’s not hard to imagine from where McGraw channeled that pain.

“When I was a kid, I went back to the Astrodome a second time to see Tug pitch,” McGraw whispers after the kickoff. “I went down to the bullpen and called his name. He ignored me. I thought of that while I was walking that same ground.”

Toward the end of the third quarter, Faith looks at her watch. The game is still in doubt, but it’s getting late. “We should get the girls home,” she says.

“Well, maybe a little longer?” asks Tim. He thinks for a second, then agrees. “You’re right.”

Tim stands up, hugs his mom, and gives a last wave to his extended family. He takes his wife’s hand, and they disappear into a crowd cheering for other people.

I stay for a little while but leave midway through the fourth quarter. As I pull out of the parking lot, I see a balding man in a faded T-shirt and khaki shorts trotting back toward the game. He holds his Titans cap in his hand – going hatless is his disguise. (“I made sure everyone got home safe, but I couldn’t miss the end of that game,” he’ll tell me later.)

The crowd cheers, and the PA announces that Franklin has just scored the go-ahead touchdown. The man smiles broadly and begins running toward the lights.

There’s not a black hat in sight.

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