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Tim McGraw raises his "Voice" on long-delayed album

 Tim McGraw performs during a Hurricane Benefit concert at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana, July 5, 2006. REUTERS/Sean Gardner - Reuters
Tim McGraw performs during a Hurricane Benefit concert at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana, July 5, 2006. REUTERS/Sean Gardner
— image credit: Reuters

By Ray Waddell

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Autumn heralds a time of change for Tim McGraw. His multifaceted career is at a crossroads as the country singer prepares for the Tuesday (October 20) release of "Southern Voice."

The new album, on Curb Records, is McGraw's 10th with producer Byron Gallimore in a collaboration that has yielded tremendously successful results at retail and on radio. McGraw's career has been one of the brightest in any genre for more than a decade, encompassing hit albums, lucrative touring and notable revenue generated by music publishing, films, TV shows and books, as well as branding and licensing.

Last April McGraw became the first established mainstream country star to sign with Red Light Management, led by Coran Capshaw. A Charlottesville, Virginia-based entrepreneur with a wide-ranging portfolio -- including real estate and a brewery -- Capshaw is perhaps best known as manager of Dave Matthews Band, founder of direct-to-fan pioneer MusicToday (now part of Live Nation) and co-founder of ATO Records.

Red Light has initiated a wealth of merchandising and marketing projects for McGraw, as well as plans for a major arena tour in early 2010. He'll also co-star with Sandra Bullock in the Warner Bros. film "The Blind Side." This is busy, even by McGraw's standards, and enthusiasm runs high. "Tim has the desire to work hard, he's engaged, he's energetic, he made a great album," Capshaw says. "Tim has a great history, people have done a great job with him, and now we're ready to try to take it to another level."

LONG WAIT

Since McGraw's career began in the early 1990s, he has sold almost 40 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and dominated the charts with 30 No. 1 singles. He has won 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 11 Country Music Assn. Awards, 10 American Music Awards, three Grammy Awards and three People's Choice Awards.

But there has been a dearth of new studio material from McGraw in recent years. The wheels of Nashville often turn slowly, but he feels he has waited an inordinately long time for the release of "Southern Voice."

Recorded in the fall of 2006 at Dark Horse studio in Franklin, Tennessee, the album will see the light of day nearly three years later. "I was still in my 30s (when the album was recorded)," McGraw says. "It was a whole other decade for me."

He recorded once again with his road band, the Dancehall Doctors. "I feel like it's a great collection of songs, and sonically I think the band sounds really great," McGraw says. "I think it has a real grounded earthiness to it."

Even so, McGraw says it's difficult to wait so long to release a record, "because you're so excited about music when you first do it and it's new," he admits. "Now I'm getting ready to go into the studio here in a month and start the next album, so I'm onto other songs now. But the great thing is I'm excited about people finally hearing this record."

Asked about the delay, McGraw, who has spent his entire career on Curb, says, "You know about Curb Records. They had three greatest-hits records out or something like that. I thought (the new studio album) was coming out a lot quicker than it did, then the greatest-hits records kept dropping. I've got one record left on this label, and I can't help but think that it was a stall tactic to add another year to my contract."

Curb general manager Dennis Hannon declined to discuss the period between new McGraw projects. The label did bring plenty of McGraw product to market after his 2007 album "Let It Go." "Greatest Hits: Limited Edition" came in April 2008; "Collector's Edition," a reissue package of three albums, arrived a month later; and "Greatest Hits 3" and "Limited Edition: Greatest Hits Volumes 1, 2 and 3" were released last October.

McGraw publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the release of "Greatest Hits 3." "It has to be just as confusing to the fans as it is to me," he said at the time in a statement. "I had no involvement in the creation or presentation of this record."

But Hannon says he is "very happy" with the choice to release a greatest-hits album. "Certainly the economic downturn played a role in the sales of 'Greatest Hits 3,'" he says, "but I think it was important while we were waiting for the release of 'Southern Voice' for us to continue to build Tim's brand at retail and, quite frankly, I think we did a very good job of it."

'VOICE' OF REASON

"Southern Voice" is a typically deep and diverse record from McGraw in what continues to be a productive relationship with producer Gallimore. McGraw says the producer brings discipline and focus to the recording process.

"I bring the sensibilities that I bring to making a record, and he keeps everything under control," McGraw says. "He doesn't let us get too far out there."

The record strikes a familiar McGraw balance between songs with weighty subjects like infidelity, mortality and parenthood -- such as "Good Girls," "If I Died Today" and "You Had to Be There" -- and the party songs that have provided some of McGraw's biggest hits, like the lead-off single, "It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You," and the title cut's upbeat tribute to all things Southern.

"There's a lot of weight to these songs," McGraw says. "But there's some light stuff, too. That's kind of why we put out 'Business Doing Pleasure.' The singles that I've put out lately have had a lot of messages, so we thought it would be kind of cool to give them something a little lighter, knowing that when it got time to be heavy that we had plenty of that on the record, as well."

As one of Nashville's most prolific hitmakers, McGraw has no shortage of great songs pitched to him. When deciding which ones to record, he says he listens closely to the opinions of Gallimore and his wife, Faith Hill.

"But ultimately, for better or for worse, it just comes down to what I feel and what I think I want to say, and how I think the songs are interpreted when I listen to them," he says. "I think there's a lot of danger, and you can hear on the radio or in people's careers, where you start trying to please people instead of trying to please yourself on a record."

McGraw begins an arena tour for "Southern Voice" in February, which he says will be "probably one of the biggest we've done in a while."

McGraw is ready to dive into this next phase of his career. "I feel like I'm only 30 percent into what I want to do, what I can do, the records and touring and everything else," he says. "I feel like I've got a lot more ahead of me than behind me. I feel like I'm going to get better, the songs are gonna get better, the records are gonna get better, the tours are gonna get better. We're young enough that we can still go out and shake the rafters and the roof, but we're old enough to really know how to get there."

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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