Tim McGraw‘s first album was released 20 years ago. It was 30 minutes long and didn’t trouble the charts, either here or in the USA.
What a difference a year (and a hit single) makes: in 1994, his second album, Not a Moment Too Soon was 32 minutes long and featured the monster hit “Indian Outlaw”. While this song seemed to have the novelty value of something like “Achy Breaky Heart” from 1992, McGraw himself was no novelty act. He released #1 albums in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2012, and now this. Ironically, one of his best albums, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, released in 2002, languished at #2 in the charts.
While Two Lanes of Freedom continues this run of success, it is nevertheless an incredible contrast to that first #1 in 1994. The iTunes Deluxe version is one hour and three minutes long, with five more tracks than was typical of a country album in the 1980s and 1990s. Is this a good thing? Some people measure the quality, others the width. Personally, I’ll always filter out the likes of “Truck Yeah“, a Southern boogie that appeals to the same constituency as Lee Brice’s “Beer” and “Parking Lot Party”. I’m probably in a minority of McGraw fans in that, however. It has already been a hit single and seemed to go down well with the British public at his recent O2 show.
What does McGraw bring? Great melodies, a smooth voice with a bit of bite, and a modern production sensibility that includes hints of vocal excitation (even actual autotune?) and lots of collaborations with hip hop artists and others on the pop side of pop. I’ve always felt McGraw’s brand of country was closely related to Southern Rock, and there’s very little not to like for fans of melody and good songwriting. He builds his albums to a formula: party songs, leavin’ songs, dyin’ songs, songs about family, songs about music.
First four tracks here are excellent: title track, “One of These Nights”, “Friend of a Friend”, and “Southern Girl”, which features a bit of vocoder. Then there’s the horrible “Truck Yeah” (which also appears, live, as an extra track), and “Nashville Without You”, which is about country music in the same way as Brad Paisley‘s “This is Country Music” a year or so back – name-checking a lot of the same songs.
One of the best songs on the album is “Book of John” which is about looking through someone’s stuff after they have died – tailor made for McGraw, who has a penchant for confronting death in his music (“Live Like You Were Dying”, “I Kill Myself” etc.). The sentimentality continues with “Annie I Owe You a Dance” (an extra on the Deluxe which recalls the tone of “Everywhere” from a few years ago), an then we get a couple of drinkin’ songs.
“Mexicoma” is yet another in a long line of country songs about going to Mexico to drink too much and forget (see McGraw’s earlier “That’s Why God Invented Mexico”, Brad Paisley’s “Don’t Drink the Water” and Blake Shelton’s “Playboys of the Southwestern World”), but is followed by the cautionary tale of “Number 37405” which is about what happens when you drink and drive.
The mood lifts again for “It’s Your World” and then McGraw sounds like himself 10 years ago on “Tinted Windows”, which is the second extra on the Deluxe edition (interesting that both extras so far have sounded like they come from an earlier era).
Final track proper brings out the big guns: Keith Urban and Taylor Swift, who started her career with a single called “Tim McGraw”. It’s an event song, ideal for performance on television award shows, it has a great groove but unfortunately Urban’s contribution on guitar isn’t very inspiring, and the coda is a bit of a noisy mush.
Passing swiftly over the extra “Truck Yeah”, we finish with the soulful “Let Me Love it Out of You” which is lovely, and features a gorgeous interlude on Hammond organ and a great guitar solo on the outro.
I almost feel there’s a conversation going on here between McGraw and Brad Paisley, whose first album, Who Needs Pictures was a #13 and 47 minutes long in 1999. Paisley’s first #1 was Mud on the Tires in 2003, and subsequent releases have hit #1 in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011.
Whereas McGraw is quite aggressively promoting Southern redneck culture with “Truck Yeah”, Paisley’s approach is more questioning, and is (as of the time of writing) landing him in hot water. In the first single released from Wheelhouse, “Southern Comfort Zone,” Paisley sings, “Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea, not everybody owns a gun and wears a ball cap, boots, and jeans…”
Of course, the real conversation Paisley is having (or trying to have) is with the Red State heartland of Country music, which have been more or less apoplectic since the selection of Barack Obama as Democratic Presidential candidate in 2008. Paisley is more “country” than McGraw but has also more of a track record in looking beyond the shores of the USA for his audience. He has always openly discussed gender issues (sometimes for laughs, sometimes in a more serious way), and in “Welcome to the Future” on American Saturday Night, he actually dared to celebrate the election of a black President.
Paisley’s albums are always full of light and shade: proper sentimentality about home, family, childhood etc. side by side with traditional country hoots and songs about goin’ fishin’, drinkin’ and fightin’ and comedy numbers featuring a line-up of special guests which have in the past included William Shatner and here include Eric Idle. All of this is accompanied by Paisley’s quite incredible guitar playing. He’s also got a taste for the sneaky clever song, such as one about taking out fire insurance for a box of expensive cigars and (on Wheelhouse) for getting out of a marriage on the grounds of having technically died for five minutes.
I suspect that he’s been wondering if his core audience even noticed this light and shade and his slightly Hollywood-liberal tendency, because he is being much more explicit on Wheelhouse, duetting with LL Cool J on the controversial “Accidental Racist”, in which he apologises for giving offence by wearing a t-shirt bearing the Confederate flag, explaining that it’s because he’s a Skynyrd fan.
This of course has opened a real can of worms, not least because Skynyrd themselves were often accused of racism, but also because people on the interwebs have decided that Paisley has no right to be saying stuff like this. He’s just now feeling the growing storm and must be wondering if the Twitter mob bearing their pitchforks are going to tar and feather him. It’s a wonder of the Twitter that freedom of speech seems to be such a problem for some people.
I’m pretty sure part of the rage is the same rage that has been directed at Obama since 2008, at the Dixie Chicks since 2003, a simply irrational hatred of anybody who dares to suggest that America might have a problem. As to the song, well, I’m never keen on rap on a country song, whoever is doing it, but I do think that Paisley not only has a right to start this conversation but that his heart is completely in the right place.
Light and shade, as I said, and I think this album needs to be taken as a whole, not isolated down to one track. The Deluxe version is 1.2 hours long and features 21 tracks, including short interludes like the funny Eric Idle piece. There’s a lot going on here, from traditional love songs, to a trendy duet with Mat Kearney (“Pressing on a Bruise”) and a song about an abused woman who fights back. There’s a funny song about a friend getting married, delivered like a eulogy, and as well as “Accidental Racist” there’s a song (“Those Crazy Christians”) which attempts to give a perspective on Christianity to non-believers. If you ask me, I’m more surprised that this one hasn’t caused more of a furore – especially from those who don’t understand irony. Paisley’s very zeitgeisty, too, and includes a song – full of heart – called “Facebook Friends”, which is in the tradition of his songs, “Celebrity” and “Online”.
The fundamental thing about Brad Paisley is that he has no hate inside him. He’s not pounding on the redneck button and trying to appeal to a lowest common denominator. He genuinely wants to reach out to people and spread a little peace, love, and understanding. And what’s wrong with that?