"I feel pretty confident in saying that this is the best record I've ever done,"
Tim McGraw says of Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, his eighth album and his most ambitious recording project to date. "It has every element I've always wanted to have in my music. It sounds real and it sounds soulful, and it's a lot more me than any record I've ever made."
With a decade-long hot streak that encompasses 19 Number One singles, six multi-platinum albums, sales of over 25 million albums and an enduring status as one of country music's most popular and respected performers, McGraw would be in an ideal position to rest on his laurels and coast for awhile. But that's exactly what he's not doing on Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors. The 15-song collection finds McGraw breaking most of the rules of how mainstream country records are madeand coming up with some of the most compelling and accessible music of his career in the process.
The self-effacing Louisiana-bred superstar has never been shy about bucking trends or defying expectations, but with Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors he's topped himself. In his ongoing pursuit of new creative options, he's bypassed Nashville's standard method of cutting tracks with session musicians in favor of recording with his longstanding live band, the Dancehall Doctors. The result is a rivetingly real tour de force whose superb songs are matched by gritty, inventive arrangements and loose, effortlessly soulful performances that enhance the songs' emotional impact while impassioned vocal performances to date.
That sense of earthy energy and emotional investment is prominent throughout Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, from the breezy romanticism of "She's My Kind of Rain" and "Watch the Wind Blow By," to the slice-of-life insights of "Red Ragtop" and "Home," to the openhearted intimacy of "I Know How To Love You Well" and "All We Ever Find," to the rollicking, good-timey feel of "Real Good Man" and "That's Why God Made Mexico," to the vivid songcraft of "Comfort Me" and "Sing Me Home"not to mention a memorable interpretation of the Elton John classic "Tiny Dancer" that's already become a staple of McGraw's live concerts. In addition to the Dancehall Doctors, the album also features guest vocals by Kim Carnes on "Comfort Me" and Eagles Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit, who add their distinctive voices to "Illegal."
"My previous albums were done in pretty much the Nashville waythe session guys came in and laid down their tracks and then I sang," McGraw explains. "I'm proud of all of those records, but I wanted to capture some of the feel and groove that I loved in my favorite records when I was growing up. It's almost unheard of for a country artist to record with his road band, but my guys have been with me for a long time, and they're an important part of what I do. And it was time to get that on a record."
Underlining the new disc's status as a McGraw career landmark is a high-profile multimedia launch that includes the artist's first-ever network TV special, shot in his hometown of Start, Louisiana and airing on NBC November 27. Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors is also accompanied by a McGraw-penned book chronicling the making of the album- "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors: This Is Ours"- which is the first of two books to be published by Simon & Schuster. A book on fatherhood will follow in 2003.
In keeping with his desire to pursue a more organic recording approach on the new album, McGraw and his bandalong with trusted producer Byron Gallimore, who's overseen all of McGraw's prior albumsloaded a 53-foot semi truck full of instruments and recording gear and retreated to the isolated environs of Allaire Studios, located in a 1920's mansion atop a mountain in upstate New York's Catskill mountains. Far from the standard clock-punching studio routine, the longtime brothers in arms worked in a creatively stimulating freeform atmosphere, building the tracks from the ground up, experimenting with new sounds and taking the songs in unexpected directions that reflected the project's risk-taking nature.
"Making this record was the most fun I've ever had in the studio and the most rewarding musical experience I've ever had," McGraw asserts, adding, "It was all about making music, and being up on this mountain far away from everybody else allowed us to focus on the job we were there to do. It was like being in a submarine and not having time to think about anything other than our mission."
Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors showcases the seamless instrumental rapport of the Dancehall Doctorslead guitarist Darran Smith (who co-produced the album with McGraw and Gallimore), steel guitarist Denny Hemingson, acoustic guitarist Bob Minner, bassist John Marcus, fiddler Dean Brown, keyboardist Jeff McMahon, drummer Billy Mason and percussionist David Dunkleywho've been an integral element of McGraw's live show for much of his career. Indeed, most of the Dancehall Doctors have been with McGraw for more than a decade, with the newest member having joined in 1996.
"I think that I sang more honestly on this record, and I think that came from the honesty that the music was played with," says McGraw. "Everybody's playing their ass off and giving it everything they've got. It's a bunch of guys who've known each other and lived together and played music together for a really long time, and it feels real because of that."
Tim McGraw has never been one to do things halfway. Growing up, he maintained an equal devotion to music and athletics, but was irrevocably drawn to the former while attending Northeast Louisiana University. After teaching himself to play guitar and cutting his teeth playing solo in local nightspots, he decided to try his luck in Nashville. Moving to Music City on little more than a wing and a prayer, the young upstart hit the local club circuit and wasted little time in establishing himself as a singularly charismatic performer.
After signing with Curb Records and releasing his self-titled debut album in June 1992, McGraw achieved his commercial breakthrough with his second album, 1994's Not A Moment Too Soon, which became the year's top-selling country album and spawned a pair of trademark hits, the rambunctious rocker "Indian Outlaw" and the sensitive ballad "Don't Take the Girl." The latter tune became his first Number One hit, and McGraw progressed from struggling club act to headliner almost overnight, eventually winning Academy of Country Music awards for Album of the Year and Top New Male Vocalist later that same year.
Tim's third album, 1995's All I Want, debuted at Number One on the Billboard country album chart and spawned three Number One singles, including the anthemic "I Like It, I Love It." The album was followed by the Spontaneous Combustion tour, which becomes the year's top-drawing country tour. The tour also featured opening act Faith Hill, whom McGraw would marry in late 1996. The same year, McGraw went behind the scenes as producer, helping to launch the multi-platinum career of Jo Dee Messina, all three of whose albums he's co-produced in collaboration with Byron Gallimore.
McGraw's 1997 release Everywhere yielded no less than five Number One singles, including "It's Your Love," which became the most-played single since Billboard began monitoring airplay; and "Just to See You Smile," which became Billboard's longest-running modern chart single, spending 42 weeks on the chart. Everywhere, which the Country Music Association named Album of the Year, also marked McGraw's first official co-production credit on one of his own albums.
1999's A Place in the Sun debuted at Number One on both the Billboard Pop and Country charts, produced four more Number One singles including "Something Like That" and "My Next Thirty Years," and won the Country Music Association's Album of the Year and Male Vocalist awards. McGraw spent much of Summer 1999 on the wildly successful A Place In The Sun tour, with opening act the Dixie Chicks, as well as performing for the second year in a row as the featured artist on the George Strait Country Music Festival tour while playing a series of low-key "Bread and Water" club shows for charity.
McGraw spent the second half of 2000 on the Soul 2 Soul 2000 tour, which teamed him with Faith Hill and played to sellout crowds in 64 cities (including a sold-out show at New York's Madison Square Garden), becoming one of the year's five top-grossing concert tours in all genres and number in country music. The end of the year saw Curb's release of Greatest Hits; while the best-of collection spent nine weeks at Number One, McGraw's enthusiasm was focused firmly on his next album of new material.
2001's Set This Circus Down was a musically and thematically ambitious effort that confirmed McGraw's commitment to expanding his artistic reach beyond country's accepted commercial boundaries. In a move that's virtually a sacrilege in Nashville terms, Tim chose not to use a photo of himself on the album's front cover, instead commissioning an artist to create a bittersweetly evocative package that elaborated upon his musical vision. His adventurousness was vindicated when fans embraced the soulful delivery and reflective lyrical tone of the smash singles "Grown Men Don't Cry," "Angry All the Time" and "The Cowboy In Me." Meanwhile, the iconoclastic personal statement "Things Change" made history as the first country song to ever chart from a downloaded version, after McGraw debuted the song on the CMA Awards show.
Also in 2001, McGraw took home the CMA's Entertainer of the Year award and five Billboard Music Awards, as well as his first Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Collaboration on "Let's Make Love," his duet with wife Faith Hill. His summer concert trek, Tim McGraw on Tour, with friends Kenny Chesney and Mark Collie as support acts, was also the top country tour of the year.
But, as Tim McGraw sees it, his massive past successes are merely the foundation for the exciting new musical phase that commences with Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors. "I see this record," he says, "as a step towards getting on the path that I want to be on musically, making great records as a band and then being able to go out and play the same stuff that we played on the records."
"This whole project," he states, "has already gone way beyond my original expectations, so for me it's already a success. It feels like we've stepped up and opened a door to a whole new place musically, and now it feels like the sky's the limit. It's also the only country record I can think of that has a mellotron on it. We may get run out of Nashville for thateither that or everybody will start using them."
"You've got to keep challenging yourself if you want to stay alive as an artist," McGraw concludes. "The thing is, I just love doing this so much, and I look at it as a challenge to dig my heels in and keep getting better. To me, this is my life's workbesides my marriage and my kids so I have to take it seriously, and I want to keep building on it."