What were you doing 30 years ago today? In some ways, it feels like 1993 was a hundred years ago. And in others, it feels like it was yesterday. Especially if you’re a diehard Tim McGraw fan.
Because on this day 30 years ago, McGraw released his self-titled debut album. In the 30 years since, he has given fans hit after hit, maintained his country sound and kept his relatability intact. He’s also living proof that you don’t last this long in this career without an extensive list of stand-out moments that shaped not only the music but the man.
To celebrate, Holler looks back at a timeline of defining moments in Tim McGraw's career so far.
McGraw’s debut album may not have been an overnight success, but it’s exactly what he was looking for when he arrived at the Nashville Greyhound Bus station: a chance.
The album’s singles like 'What Room Was the Holiday In', 'Welcome to the Club', 'Two Steppin' Mind' and 'Memory Lane' didn’t fly up the charts, but they taught McGraw lessons that he’d put to good use when his next shot came around.
If you listen to that first 30-year-old album, McGraw’s voice is packed with twang. 'Memory Lane' and 'What Room Was the Holiday In' hit it especially hard. But by his next releases, it’s never quite as thick.
McGraw said that his turning point came in late 1993 when he was on the verge of recording the songs that would make up his second album, Not a Moment Too Soon.
“I remember lying in bed, and I wanted to get in and record as soon as I could because I didn't know how long they were gonna let me record again after the first album,” he said. “I hadn't let anybody really hear my songs. I'm a pretty shy person, and I remember going in the studio the next day with my producers and all these musicians and saying that were gonna do this my way, that I'm gonna record these songs the way I want to record them.”
It would go on to become the best-selling country album of 1994.
In 1994 McGraw earned his first gold certification from the RIAA for 'Indian Outlaw', then quickly earned his first No. 1 Billboard single with 'Don't Take the Girl'. Already, his second album was doing everything that his debut did not. Most notably, it put McGraw on the map as an artist with bona fide star potential.
Even with only a couple of years of making it in music, McGraw used his newfound fame to raise money for his hometown of Rayville, Louisiana. He started a benefit show called Swampstock in 1994, and it was an almost annual event until 2006. Over the years, the concert’s proceeds funded Little League parks and equipment, along with college scholarships for students in the north east Louisiana area.
Country artists always say they aren’t in it for the awards and accolades, but McGraw couldn’t dodge the inevitable build-up of trophies. In 1994, he won two ACM Awards for Top New Male Vocalist and Album of the Year, plus a Billboard Music Award for Best New Country Artist and an American Music Award for Favorite New Country Artist. It was a sign of what was to keep coming and coming.
When she set out to make her self-titled debut album in 1996, Jo Dee Messina had McGraw co-produce the album with his own producer Byron Gallimore. It was a good call on her part, because it turned out that he had a knack for picking the best songs no matter who the artist was - the best example being Messina’s debut single 'Heads Carolina, Tails California', which quickly rose to be a top 10 hit.
When McGraw headlined one of the most successful country tours of the 1996 - The Spontaneous Combustion Tour – something even more successful was happening behind the scenes: he met the tour’s opener Faith Hill. They fell in love almost instantly, and married later that year.
The memoir hit store shelves in 1996, and was the first time his fans heard the true story behind his discovery as a boy that major-league pitcher Tug McGraw was his biological father. Around the same time, McGraw himself started to open up about his mixed feelings about finding out who his father was, and what it had been like to build a relationship with him as a young man. Ultimately, McGraw’s 2004 release of 'Live Like You Were Dying' came shortly after his father’s death. It went on to win top honors from the CMA, the ACM and the Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
Even after McGraw had enough of his own hits to complete a set list, he started branching out, and it turns out he has a gift for making someone else’s songs his own: Elton John’s 'Tiny Dancer', Eddie Rabbitt's 'Suspicions', Snow Patrol’s 'Chasing Cars', David Allan Coe’s 'The Ride', Ryan Adam’s 'When the Stars Go Blue' and more, both country and not.
“There’s a specific way that records generally get made,” McGraw explained in his Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors book from 2002. “Usually, the singer is backed in the studio by studio musicians, rather than by the band musicians who accompany the singer on the road.” But when it came time to make his seventh album, he flipped that script. “After seven albums, you just want to try something different,” he said. He and his band members headed to the Allaire Studio in upstate New York in an old farmhouse on a mountain top in the Catskills. The album gave McGraw four more top five hits on the country charts.
Despite the controversy surrounding his early hit 'Indian Outlaw', McGraw still took on serious subject matters knowing they might stir the proverbial pot. His 2002 song 'Red Ragtop' painted a picture of young lovers who were wild and green, and decided not to have a child: "So we did what we did and we tried to forget". Even though the topics of unwanted pregnancy and abortion were taboo in 2002, it was relatable to McGraw’s fans who’d had to make that tough decision themselves.
In 2004, just months after McGraw’s biological father died from a brain tumor at his home in Tennessee, he released 'Live Like You Were Dying'. It becomes not just a massive hit, but a better way to look at the one trip around the sun you get. It encourages everyone to be a better spouse, friend, son, daughter and to love deeper, speak sweeter and treat tomorrow like a gift.
It was 2004, and the Tim McGraw that country fans had known for 10 years was suddenly making his acting debut. And he was good. Black Cloud premiered during the Nashville Film Festival, and it opened all kinds of doors for McGraw in Hollywood. He was a casting director’s dream: a natural actor, a hard worker and someone with an existing and extremely loyal fanbase. He eventually took on leading and supporting roles in The Blind Side, Friday Night Lights, Flicka, Country Strong, Four Christmases, and most recently, 1883.
While McGraw has done collaborations with fellow country artists, including his wife, he has also kept his mind open to cross-genre opportunities. He was an early adopter of the trend, in fact. In 2004, he teamed up with hip-hop artist Nelly on 'Over and Over', and that launched a string of non-country collabs like'Nine Lives' with Def Leppard and 'Way Down' with Shy Carter.
There’s a viral video from 2007 when a McGraw fan in the front row attempts to touch him inappropriately. Hill, who was performing with her husband at the time, stops singing to give the fan stern talking to. “Somebody needs to teach you some class, my friend,” she says for the whole arena to hear. It happened again in 2014, when McGraw had to break free from a female fan in the middle of his Atlanta show. Her attempts to touch him resulted in ripping his jeans and then being escorted out of the venue.
Like other years, 2007 was a big awards show year for McGraw. But one particular song, 'Find Out Who Your Friends Are', took home the prize for Musical Event of the Year at the CMA Awards, not just for McGraw, but his longtime Nashville pals Kenny Chesney and Tracy Lawrence. The gist of the song is that there are some friends who will drop everything and show up, and some who won’t.
At the 2007 ACM Awards, McGraw took the stage to sing a ballad he’d written just weeks before. Nobody had heard it, but that night, the whole world had a chance to listen to the letter penned by a soldier who wasn’t going to make it home. He’d written the song with Brett and Brad Warren just a few weeks before the show. When the performance was over, the families of fallen soldiers seated behind McGraw were spotlighted.
As a last-minute host invited to fill in for Justin Timberlake in 2008, McGraw not only filled those shoes but thoroughly exceeded cast and audience expectations. His sketches included a James Bond parody Live Another Death, a TV commercial for a Clear Rite dental device, an appearance on Dateline, a turkey-hunting skit, an awkward Thanksgiving Dinner and a promotional bit for Dale Britches’ Down-Home Phony Phone Calls. He basically stole the show that night.
Because McGraw keeps himself to himself, his fans never knew anything was wrong. But he was struggling with an addiction to alcohol, and he finally came clean physically and publicly in 2008. “When your wife tells you it’s gone too far, that’s a big wake-up call,” he said. “That, and realizing you’re gonna lose everything you have. Not monetarily, not career-wise, but family-wise. It got to the point where my kids were getting older, and it was way past the point that they noticed it. And I noticed that they noticed.” Five years later and 40 pounds lighter, McGraw landed on the cover of Men’s Health.
In 1997, right after marrying Hill, the country couple joined forces for 'It’s Your Love'. That set in motion a whole anthology of country collabs: 'Bring on the Rain' with Jo Dee Messina, 'Highway Don't Care' with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, 'Feel Like A Rock Star' with Kenny Chesney, 'May We All' with Florida Georgia Line, 'Undivided' with Tyler Hubbard, and 'Lovin Lately' with Big & Rich.
In 2013, he did what so many country artists should do, and collected all of his duets for a compilation album called Tim McGraw & Friends. His partners include everyone from Hill, Messina, Lionel Richie and Gwyneth Paltrow to Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Tony Bennet and more.
The country couple clearly knows how to stage a show together. But in 2016, the Mr. & Mrs. pulled off the unthinkable: they played a Nashville show for fans who had no idea who’d be playing. It was billed as the Sam & Audrey show (if you knew enough to know that those were the names on their birth certificates, you might have speculated it was them). The to-capacity crowd was kept guessing until the moment McGraw and Hill walked out on stage to take turns singing their own hits along with some of their most cherished duets.
After both of their lengthy careers as country superstars, it seemed long overdue when, in 2017, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened an exhibit called Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man. It celebrated the careers of both McGraw and Hill, and featured all kinds of memorabilia including multiple Grammy awards, Hill’s Heidi Weisel wedding dress and even the dressing-room mirror that Hill used to answer McGraw’s marriage proposal.
After close to 30 years of hearing McGraw’s music on the radio, it was quite a change to hear his voice as the host. His Apple Music Country show Beyond the Influence Radio with Tim McGraw premiered in late 2020, and gave him the opportunity to talk about the music that influenced him with his guests, including Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton and many more.
“If I learn something every day, and if I learn something from the people that I run across, then it’s gonna make me better for it in what I do,” he said of his perspective on the show. “I promise you, there’s gonna be some people who know a lot more than I do.”
While Nashville record labels can be something of a fickle mistress, McGraw has always been the one to make a move before someone else did it for him. His first 11 studio albums came from his first label home, Curb Records. It was a nice, long run from 1993 to 2012. That’s when he left Curb and joined the Big Machine label family for his next four albums as a solo artist, including 2020's Here on Earth. Even within his Big Machine years, though, McGraw pivoted briefly between albums to join Sony Music Nashville from 2017-2020.
There has never been an acting role more suitable for McGraw than 1883’s James Dutton. The 2021-2022 series was essentially a 10-episode origin-story spin off of the massively popular Yellowstone, and McGraw and his wife did some of their best work as that show’s ancestors James and Margaret Dutton, as they made their way from Tennessee and Texas to Oregon and Montana where Yellowstone made its fictional home.
McGraw gave the leading role his all, going over his lines during his early morning workouts, watching old Westerns and digging through the scripts to understand why Dutton was doing what he was doing after the Civil War. “I think he was looking for an untainted place to take his family to,” he’d said of his character study.
Every country star dealt with the covid crisis differently. Faced with unprecedented times, big tours were canceled and recording sessions dwindled, but songwriters thrived. McGraw ran with that, and used his unexpected downtime to find songs and make a brand new album. His 2020 release proved that the show must go on. And on his did. The album received critical acclaim and garnered McGraw a few new hits and plenty of deep cuts that revealed that his solid country roots are still fully intact.
Was McGraw the first one to embrace Instagram reels? He got comfortable being very honest with his fans when he started posting viral videos about just about everything. His retrospective reels – where he watches his old videos and sheds some light on his history-making collection with brutal honesty and his quiet sense of self-deprecating humor – are some of his most-watched. He also shares acoustic covers of songs like Shania Twain’s 'Still the One', Merle Haggard’s'“If We Make it Through December', Lynn Anderson’s 'Rose Garden' and more.
This is the first official single from McGraw’s 17th studio album, due out later this year. It’s essentially about living a life so full that when you die, your funeral will be so crowded that there will be standing room only. Not a bad way to go.
But there’s something else McGraw loves about it. “I love every line in the song. There’s not a wasted syllable. I love 'now and then on nights like this I catch a thunderbolt'. That reminds me of playing live and those nights where everything’s perfect. Those are the nights that keep you going for the next night. You live for that one night when the stars all align."
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