Pop Culture

At 39, Tim McGraw looking beyond music

Tim McGraw once sang about all the things he planned to do later in life.

In "My Next 30 Years," he vowed to cry a little less, laugh a little more, raise a little family and hang out with his wife.

That modest list didn't include becoming a movie star, getting elected to public office or being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame — but maybe it should have.

The 39-year-old singer, who will release his 11th album, "Let It Go," on Tuesday, has become one of the most successful stars of his generation: his 26 No. 1 hits easily surpass those racked up by Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks.

But he's branched into acting with a few well-received film roles, and he's even talked about running for office in Tennessee someday.

It's a long way from the early '90s when the Louisiana native was one in a parade of look-alike "hat acts" that emerged after Brooks.

John Hart, a former program director at WXTU in Philadelphia who now runs a marketing research company in Nashville, recalls booking a young McGraw on the station.

"He was promoting his first single, 'What Room Was the Holiday Inn' and it was just a terrible song," Hart said. "He was a scared little kid, but a good-looking kid. The only reason I booked him was so we could say we were having (former major league pitcher) Tug McGraw's son on."

From 'Indian Outlaw' to lighthearted anthemsMcGraw's first success came in 1994 with "Indian Outlaw," a goofy novelty song that some radio stations refused to play because it was offensive to some American Indians. It kicked off a string of lighthearted McGraw anthems, such as "Down on the Farm," "I Like It, I Love It" and "Something Like That."

The singer could also be maudlin. The ballad "Don't Take the Girl" was a weepy tale of young love torn apart. But it became his first No. 1 and helped cement his image as a ruggedly good looking guy with a sensitive side — a perfect fit for the genre's large female demographic.

His 1996 marriage to fellow superstar Faith Hill enhanced his popularity. They became Nashville's glamour couple, and their duets such as "It's Your Love" crossed over to the pop charts.

He's taken a weightier tone in recent years, singing about abortion in "Red Rag Top," despair in "Angry All the Time" and mortality in "Live Like You Were Dying," a song he heard when his father was dying of cancer.

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Speaking recently between bites of lunch, McGraw said he's had complete control over his material and sound since his sophomore album, "Not a Moment Too Soon."

"Everyone has left me alone since then," he said.

But for all his fame and success, McGraw has never been recognized as a songwriter or a musical visionary, like a Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.

Last year, for the first time, he released a song he co-wrote, "My Little Girl," a gentle piece from the soundtrack to his last movie, "Flicka." On the new album, he co-wrote one track, the grinding rocker "Train 10."

"I would say he's at the beginning of his career because he's just starting to write music and do music that's a reflection of his own life," said Jeff Garrison, vice president of programming for CBS country radio.

Most songs don't make the cut
McGraw said he writes plenty of songs, but doesn't like most of them enough to record.

"Every now and then something comes up that I co-wrote that I really like," he said. "I think the older I get as an artist, there are more avenues I want to explore."

While he seems a shoo-in for the Country Music Hall of Fame, McGraw's legacy could lie beyond music. He's received favorable reviews for his acting in "Friday Night Lights" and "Flicka," and he'll appear later this year with Jamie Foxx in "The Kingdom."

And then there's politics. He's raised money for Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and blasted the Bush administration's cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Last September, he sang at a birthday party for former President Clinton.

McGraw, who describes himself as a Southern populist Democrat, grew up in Start, La., about 60 miles from the birthplace of Huey "The Kingfish" Long, the flamboyant populist of the 1920s and '30s.

To hear McGraw tell it, politics is virtually encoded in his DNA. Folks in Louisiana have four primary interests, he said: politics, football, food and drinking. "I grew up around it. It's always been a big interest of mine."

While McGraw insists he has no immediate plans to seek office — he wants to see how he feels and what's available when his three young daughters get older — he's expressed a desire to be a governor or senator in his adopted state of Tennessee.

It's clear McGraw is looking beyond music.

"When you have the time, and you're as successful as my wife and I have been, you should take that opportunity to help people," he said.

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