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Catching up with Tim McGraw

Catching up with Tim McGraw — The veteran country star talks about a summer tour, his family, and more

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Who’s country music’s biggest male superstar post-Garth? At various points Toby Keith and Alan Jackson were contenders; Keith Urban might yet be one. Right now, though, it’s a two-horse race, between Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Last year, Chesney drew more concert attendees than any other artist. But the joint tour by McGraw and wife Faith Hill brought in more dollars and was the highest-grossing country trek in history. And while it’s difficult to quantify who provokes more screams from country’s core demographic of lusty cowgirls…

”Chicks think Kenny’s hot?” McGraw interrupts. ”Is that true?” Well, ah, so we’ve been told. ”Hey, did y’all hear this?” he calls out to his band, who are noshing on the other side of a Nashville rehearsal space. ”Girls actually think Kenny Chesney’s hot?”

”That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard,” yells back one player. ”He stays in the sun too long,” hollers another. McGraw can’t stop feigning incredulity: ”That’s weird. That’s strange.”

Since there are no Grammys for country hotness, EW elected to use a nearly scientific method to settle the matter. Both stars are renowned for throwing an arena’s pheromone level completely off-kilter with just a pair of tight jeans, so we Googled ”Tim McGraw” in combination with the word ”butt,” then did the same for Chesney. Results: McGraw’s bum yielded about 139,000 presumably admiring Web citations, while Chesney’s derriere was slightly, er, behind with roughly 129,000.

”Well, that’s more than I thought he’d get,” McGraw says, pleased. ”Because he has no butt — no ass at all. I think he puts pads in there or something. No, it’s obviously me — I rest my case.”

They’re friends, if you must know (McGraw just performed at Chesney’s birthday party; both are now 39). And there are enough spoils to go around. White-hatted Chesney is the free-spirited single who promises island getaways on the upscale side and keggers on the cheap. Meanwhile, man-in-black McGraw — by virtue of being half of one of the country’s most famous same-career couples — represents a marriage-material ideal; in 2005, Redbookreaders voted him ”America’s hottest husband.”

If McGraw is the fantasy spouse many women want to have their morning coffee with, his image isn’t so domesticated that it wards off men who’d like to share the proverbial beer. There’s plenty of soundtrack material for both on his chart-topping new album, Let It Go (which just enjoyed the second-best sales debut of the year, with 325,000). Ladies will love the requisite romantic duet, ”I Need You,” with Hill. Still, Let It Go is light on the kind of pandering love songs favored by some of his country contemporaries. His current No. 1 single, ”Last Dollar (Fly Away),” vows nothing but itinerancy and wanderlust; the Springsteen fanatic also picks songs about blue-collar midlife crises (the title track), sensuality as a release from sorrow and workday frustrations (”Put Your Lovin’ on Me”), and how workaholism will kill you (”Nothing to Die For”). Probably no mainstream country singer is better at subtly exploring middle-aged male angst under the guise of escapism.

”I’ve never said I was the best singer in the world,” McGraw explains. ”When I’m doing my record, I want to feel like I’m sitting down in a chair facing somebody, telling you how I feel…and every now and then, without getting too preachy, telling you how you feel.”

The shadow sides that sometimes appear in his songs aren’t often evident in McGraw’s public life, even if the omnipresent black cowboy hat hints at a bad boy within. Not wanting to go the way of country’s previous first couple, the tumultuous twosome George Jones and Tammy Wynette, McGraw and Hill generally succeed at eluding the tabloids. Still, there are stories — like the Enquirer‘s latest attempt at an exposé. Ask McGraw if he’s seen it; he says no — and looks a little nervous. Here’s the gist: Hill gets angry because, even though McGraw doesn’t smoke or drink in front of the kids, she does find beer cans and cigarette butts out in the clubhouse after he’s spent time with the guys.

Relieved, McGraw chuckles. ”That’s probably true. Not that she was mad, but that there were cigarette butts and beer cans. I like to have fun with my friends. And I live in a house full of women. I’ve got three daughters” — ages 5, 8, and 9 —”a [female] housekeeper, and my wife, and I love it, but man, a guy’s gotta be a guy sometimes. You’ve gotta go break some things every now and then.”

Another Vote McGraw Might Walk Away With could be for America’s hottest dad. He and Hill schedule tours around their daughters’ school vacations, and McGraw coaches one of their basketball teams. There might even be some understandable overcompensation there, based on the star’s own less graceful upbringing.

McGraw grew up poor in Louisiana with a sometimes abusive stepfather who was already gone by the time McGraw found out who his biological dad was. Rummaging through a closet for a sneak peek at Christmas presents at age 11, the boy who had a baseball card of Tug McGraw on his wall discovered a birth certificate that proved his father was, in fact, the relief pitcher who found fame as a Met and Phillie from 1964 to 1984. Soon thereafter, he met with the ballplayer, who refused to believe that Tim was his. Seven years later, they reunited and developed a friendship, if not quite a father-son bond. But it was Tug who triggered his son getting a record deal in 1990, when he passed a demo to somebody who knew somebody at Curb Records.

Seventeen years later, the junior McGraw has sold over 34 million records and had 27 of his singles hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s country chart. He’s also moonlighting as an actor (see below). A curious dichotomy: The guy who never goes out in public without the black hat (or black skullcap, for informal occasions) isn’t so shy about full cranial exposure on a 60-foot screen, preferring character roles to anything that’d capitalize on the Nashville image that’s limited other countrymen-turned-thespians.

Even without a big-screen presence, his iconography is secure: Taylor Swift, 17, recently had her first country hit, ”Tim McGraw.” ”When I heard about it, I hoped [she wasn’t] making fun of me,” he laughs. ”Then, when I heard the lyrics” — in which Swift hopes her ex will think of her fondly whenever McGraw oldies come on the radio — ”how old is this girl?”

Meanwhile, McGraw and his girl are about to reprise 2006’s $89 million-grossing Soul2Soul tour. It’ll probably be the couple’s last joint outing. ”Our oldest daughter is turning 10, and they’re starting to have their own lives, so this is the last year we thought we could get away with it, taking ’em away all summer.” Though taking Hill and their daughters on the road might seem like an estrogen-rich experience, the time he spends alone on stage represents his best chance to get away from it all. ”You’re hiding in plain sight,” he explains. ”It’s like you’re in an isolation booth. If it’s a day I’m not feeling good, I know I can get through the interviews and shaking hands and talking to promoters, because as soon as it’s time to get dressed, you put your [earphones] in, and you can be left alone for two hours.”

On stage, he’ll joke about quitting the touring regime once that billion-dollar butt starts to sag. However, he does have an exit strategy. One of mainstream country’s few ”out” Democratic stars, McGraw figures he might run for Tennessee governor when he’s closer to 50 (he turns 40 on May 1). ”If, when my kids are grown, I feel like I can make a difference and be smart enough to do something like that, then certainly I want to help.”

How about the Oval Office? ”You can probably get away with a few more skeletons [being governor] than you can being president,” he demurs. ”I’ve counted ’em, and I think I might be just on the cusp of governor. Or…” — there’s still some inner cadaver cataloging going on, obviously — ”…mayor. Or president of the local VFW.”

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