From barbecue stains on white t-shirts to highways that don’t care, Tim McGraw has built his career on chart-topping country songs that celebrate the sights, sounds, and stories of American people.
He’s a singer. A performer. A storyteller who pulls his audience into a world where the green grass grows, the wind blows by, and the stars go blue. This fall, McGraw takes us back to that place with Sundown Heaven Town,his thirteenth studio album (and second release for Big Machine Records).
“I picture a little town, like the one I grew up in,” he says of the album’s picturesque title. “It’s late in the afternoon. Sunset. Maybe some kids are playing baseball, and their family members are in the stands. You’re at the point where the working week has given way to the weekend. That’s my idea of sundown in heaven town.”
It’s been 20 years since McGraw scored his first No. 1 hit with “Don’t Take the Girl,” a song that kicked off a string of multi-platinum albums, 54 Top 10 singles, multiple ACM and CMA Awards, and millions of concert tickets sold across North America. Sundown Heaven Townpays tribute to those two decades, putting a new stamp on all of the sounds —the revved-up country rockers, the nostalgic ballads, the down-home numbers —that have made McGraw one of the best-selling country artists of the modern era.
From the banjo riff that kicks off the opening track, “Overrated,” to the digital percussion that pushes “Lookin’ for that Girl” into pop-influence territory, Sundown Heaven Town mixes the old with the new, the rustic with the modern, the organic with the electric. It’s a country record, in other words…with all the twists and turns we’ve come to expect from someone who’s been at the top of the genre since 1994.
“This album is very encompassing of everything that I’ve done in my career,” McGraw explains. “It’s a good microcosm of what my 20 years in music has been. You can hear parts of my career throughout all these songs, as well as the future and where my music is headed.”
Sundown Heaven Town also shines a light on the family, friends, and collaborators who’ve played roles in McGraw’s career. His first cousin, Catherine Dunn, joins him on “Diamonds Rings and Old Barstools,” a classic-sounding country ballad about love on the rocks. His wife of 18 years, Faith Hill, lends her award-winning vocals to “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” which doubles as the album’s first chart-topper. Longtime friend Kid Rock makes an appearance, too, raising a rootsy ruckus on the bonus track “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs.”
Although the album is co-produced by McGraw himself, he also shares production credit with Byron Gallimore, the same man who helped record McGraw’s 12 previous multi-platinum chart topping albums. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, right?
“I love being able to collaborate with great people,” he says. “To be in a place in your career where you can call up somebody like Keith Urban or Kid Rock and ask them to play or sing on a song with you, and they do it…How cool is that?”
Several months before the album’s release, McGraw launched the “Sundown Heaven Town 2014 Tour,” giving the singer a chance to perform some of the album’s songs long before they hit stores. After spending countless summers on the road — McGraw knew that his new songs deserved to be heard not only on the radio, or in a pair of fans’ earbuds, but on stage. After all, there’s an immediacy to Sundown‘s faster tunes, an anthemic vibe that owes just as much to the amphitheater as the honky tonk.
A family man and devoted husband, McGraw also shines a light on his softer side with tracks like “Words are Medicine” and “Portland, Maine.” He recorded his vocal parts for the latter song in just 10 minutes. The result is a wounded, wistful ballad, driven forward not by a drumbeat, but an acoustic guitar. McGraw may look larger than life while standing onstage… but when he sings about heartache, he sounds just as vulnerable as the rest of us. Maybe that’s why he considers “Portland, Maine” one of the album’s best songs, a difficult distinction to make on a record that spawned three hit singles before the album’s release.
From start to finish, Sundown Heaven Town tips its cowboy hat to the traditions of country music, then tosses a some new ingredients into the mix. The result is a melting pot of everything Tim McGraw does best. It’s a country album for 2014, anchored by a fondness for the genre and the desire to push it into uncharted territory. More than anything else, it’s proof that artists can sound contemporary without chasing after current trends. After all, trends don’t last — but songs do. Especially songs like these.