For Tim McGraw, the process of selecting songs for an album and picking movie scripts is no different. He must respond to the material on a basic emotional level.
"I have to take an intellectual cap off and wait to be hit viscerally," McGraw, the 46-year-old country star and actor, said from the road recently. "You have to be moved. Whether it's funny, sad, tragic or even mean — something's got to prickle the hairs on the back of your neck."
Although McGraw — who headlines Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va., on Saturday — has sold more than 40 million albums and won three Grammy Awards, he says he's only now figuring out how to craft the music he wants to create.
McGraw says he's proud of every album he's made, dating back to his 1993 self-titled debut, but that February's "Two Lanes of Freedom" marks a "new beginning" in his career. It's also his first release on Big Machine Records.
It's no coincidence McGraw sounds reinvigorated after departing his long-time label, Curb Records, in 2011. Although it's been a bumpy legal process — Curb filed a breach-of-contract federal suit against McGraw in late April — the country singer seems relieved to leave his old home behind.
"Certainly coming out of all the mess with Curb and going into the studio with this weight off me made a difference in how the record sounded," McGraw said, calling "Two Lanes" a "benchmark" album in his catalog.
"Two Lanes" is unmistakably a country album, but there's a noticeable range of outside influences in its DNA. "Truck Yeah" opens with McGraw singing, "Got Lil Wayne pumping on my iPod." "Mexicoma," an uptempo ode to a hangover, features horns and an accordion. McGraw sings the chorus of "Southern Girl" through Auto-Tune.
To those paying attention to contemporary country, McGraw's blending of genres comes as little surprise. (Fittingly, Taylor Swift, the Big Machine artist most responsible for blurring the lines between country and pop, joins McGraw on the album's closing song "Highway Don't Care.") Not all country fans have embraced the trend, but McGraw says he must follow his instincts, not outside opinions, in the studio.
"If you go in and say, 'I'm going to make a record according to what fans or radio wants,' or 'I'm going to make a record according to what my record label wants me to make,' then you're not being an artist anymore in a lot of ways," McGraw said. "I have to go in and trust what I do, and make it how I hear it in my head."
Twenty years into his country career, it's hard to argue with McGraw's results. "Two Lanes" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 107,000 copies sold in its first week. As is often the case with McGraw, he's touring for months in support of the album, which gives him little time to focus on his other career, acting.
Since his big-screen debut in 2004, McGraw has earned roles in drama films ("Friday Night Lights," "Country Strong") and comedy ("Four Christmases"). He says there are movie projects in the works; it's just about finding time to complete them.
Perhaps most famously, McGraw portrayed Sean Tuohy, the adoptive father of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher, in 2009's "The Blind Side." McGraw says he's never met Oher but has spoken with him on the phone several times. McGraw speaks highly of Oher because the football player is kind and seems to understand himself, which echoes McGraw's own blueprint of success.
"He's just a really good guy who really knows himself," McGraw said of Oher. "That's the best foundation for success — knowing who you are."
If you go
Tim McGraw performs Saturday at Jiffy Lube Live, 7800 Cellar Door Drive, in Bristow, Va. Doors open at 6 p.m. Brantley Gilbert and Love and Theft will also perform. Tickets are $30.25-$70. Call 703-754-6400 or go to thejiffylubelive.com.