"A lot of artists can tell you how they feel," says Tim McGraw, "but when somebody can tell you how you feel, and you didn't know it or couldn't put it into words, that's the goal. What you want to do as an artist is let someone discover how they feel from your music, in a really visceral way, from the inside out." For twenty years, McGraw has been providing that kind of powerful connection with his audience. With Two Lanes of Freedom, his new album—and first release for Big Machine Records—the singer is covering his broadest emotional range yet, with a set of songs that looks forward and back, gets deep and gets loose, and reveals that even the biggest stars can continue to grow with consistency and maturity. In his record-shattering career, McGraw has sold over 40 million albums, and dominated the charts with 32 Number One singles. Since the release of his debut album in 1993, he has won three Grammys, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 12 Country Music Association Awards, and 10 American Music Awards, while simultaneously maintaining a parallel career as a successful actor in such films as The Blind Side, Country Strong, and Friday Night Lights—as well as hosting Saturday Night Live, a rare honor for a singer in any genre. McGraw has never been afraid of breaking new ground; over the years, he has collaborated with musicians from Nelly to Tony Bennett to Def Leppard and Ne-Yo.
"I feel like I've progressed in my work, and I've gotten better," says McGraw. "On my last album, Emotional Traffic, I was discovering some new sounds and new things that I wanted to do, scratching the surface of the direction I wanted to head. This album was a way to reach a little further back, to all that I'd done throughout my career, and bring both sides together—it's a combination of that discovery, along with some rediscovery." Over the last few years, McGraw has seen a transformation in numerous aspects of his career: changes in his management, his record company, and his band. "All of those things make you reflect on where you've been," he says, "and it's hard to think about where you want to go until you look at where you've been. When you listen to this record, there's a lot of that reflection that drives everything forward. It's almost like two magnets, the future and the past, and when they get close to each other, it pushes them away. "I've always gone in the studio and tried to make the best record I could possibly make," he continues, "but to come into a situation where there's some weight lifted, some refreshment going on, you can feel that in the music. I think you can feel the horses gallop on this record, and where I might go and what I might do when my engines are revving."
On Two Lanes of Freedom, the sense of nostalgia comes through on such classic-sounding tracks as "Annie, I Owe You a Dance" and the hard-driving single "One of Those Nights." The reverie of those songs, though, is countered by the humor and joy of "Southern Girl" or the feel-good hangover of "Mexicoma." McGraw maintains that it was the album's title track that really established the tone for the entire project. "When we cut 'Two Lanes of Freedom,' there was such a freshness to it," he says. "The track has this sort of Gaelic drive to it, with a synthesized didgeridoo and hurdy-gurdy. The song sets a palette for the whole record because it's so visual—it has that summery, hazy image, and I think that made the whole record open up for me." If the album addresses a set of classic themes in country music, part of the reason may be that it was recorded in a very traditional fashion. "We were in the studio for two weeks straight, from ten in the morning until eleven or twelve at night," says McGraw. "It was like the old days of making a record, like a bunch of guys going in a submarine and making music." But the sound that resulted, with hints of everything from rock to hip-hop to bluegrass, is hardly limited to the conventional country playbook. "I don't ever want to paint anybody into a box when we're in the studio," says the singer. "We want these guys to come in and bring everything they have to the table. After the sessions, I got an email from one of the musicians saying that it was such a great experience to be so free to make a record, and the greatest thing to me was this sense of freedom that all the musicians had." The strength and confidence in the musical settings helped McGraw reach some especially emotional depth in his performances on such songs as "Number 37405," the lament of a singer-turned-convict.
Most powerful of all might be "Book of John," a wistful account of a family going through the journal left behind by its late patriarch. "I don't have a huge reservoir of what a father-son relationship is, I don't have a deep well to draw from," says McGraw. "I didn't know my father very well, had sort of a rocky relationship with my step-dad, and now I have all daughters. So that song spoke to me in an odd way—it came more out of the longing for that sort of relationship than from my own experience, and I think that shows up in how we cut the record and how I sang it." Two Lanes of Freedom closes with "The Highway Don't Care," a breezy yet complex track that features two of country music's biggest superstars, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban. "When I heard the song, I knew I wanted Taylor to sing on it," says McGraw. "And I've been looking for years for something to have Keith play on, because I think he's one of the best artists we have out there. He's a fantastic guitar player and he went to town on this thing—I would do this for a hundred bucks a night and never sing another lick if I could play guitar like that." The album begins and ends with images of the road, a scenario that Tim McGraw knows well and he's sure to embark on another sell-out tour supporting the new album in 2013.
On stage and on record, Tim McGraw remains dedicated to delivering music that is innovative, heartfelt, and authentic. "These songs are written and constructed in a way that people can impose their own memories and put themselves in your place, like going to a great movie and making yourself the hero," he says. "Art has to be cathartic; that's why people enjoy it. It makes you think or reflect, it purges you emotionally. That's what propels you as an artist, and it's what makes a listener stay engaged."