The Clinton Of Country

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RALPH NELSON / UNIVERSAL

Country Singer Tim McGraw sits on the hood of a car, with actor Garrett Hedlund behind the steering wheel, in a scene from the upcoming film "Friday Night Lights"

Before the curtain goes up at any concert venue around the country, the headlining act must engage in some backstage banter with local DJs, the children of corporate sponsors and whomever the Teamsters want to impress. The music industry calls this compulsory session the meet and greet, and because the spontaneity is scheduled and the patronage barely disguised, it is often the grimmest 15 minutes of any touring musician's day. But Tim McGraw loves it. He has his road crew set up a tent with a tiny stage and shabby-chic furniture. He keeps everyone plied with Bud Light, the beer he hawks in TV commercials. Then he saunters in, clasps each outstretched hand, delivers a perfectly timed moment of eye contact and sits down for a quick acoustic song that doubles as his vocal warm-up. When it's over, he exits to ferocious applause, reminding everyone, "As Americans, you have a responsibility to vote, so get out there and do it!"

It's no accident that McGraw, 37, has turned his professional obligation into a campaign whistle-stop. "I love politics," he says on the way back to his dressing room. "I love Bill Clinton. I think we should make him king. I'm talking the red robe, the turkey leg — everything." Then, because such things must be floated carefully and modestly, McGraw adds, "I want to run for the Senate from Tennessee. Not now, but when I'm 50, when music dies down a little bit. I know lots of artists and actors have those delusions of grandeur, but ever since I was a kid, it's been of interest to me."


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Those who would dismiss McGraw out of hand should first remember Arnold Schwarzenegger (or country singer Jimmie Davis, who served two terms as Governor of Louisiana) and then give some thought to the vagaries of country music. Nashville is perhaps the most protocol-obsessed U.S. city outside of Washington, and McGraw is its smoothest operator. He has sold 30 million albums (his latest, Live Like You Were Dying, entered Billboard's album chart at No. 1) without being excessively cornpone or mindlessly pop. In the process, he has done what his predecessor Garth Brooks could not do: reach an audience outside his genre while remaining well liked within it. "Nashville hates anyone who has ambitions beyond Nashville," says a country record executive. "Shania, Garth Brooks get no respect in this town. But Tim has done a good job of disguising his motives — or of at least paying the proper respect to the industry."

In political terms, McGraw is a master at covering his base. "Country music has a lot of rules," he says. "It can be frustrating, but the key is figuring out which ones matter and which ones don't." The ones that matter are the ones he observes: live in Nashville, rely on the best country songwriters for material, dress the part, and keep your progressive politics (mostly) to yourself. "Onstage, I tell people to go vote," he says. "But what I vote for? Nobody cares. At least not right now." The rules McGraw breaks — by wearing a bad-guy black hat instead of the white one good guys wear, recording with his touring band, the Dancehall Doctors, as opposed to studio musicians — are so absurd that he seems just roguish when he flouts them.

His instincts for what he can get away with, as well as his fairy-tale life with his wife, singer Faith Hill, and their three daughters, have made McGraw Nashville royalty and given him unprecedented freedom to venture outside the country ghetto. "I'm a country singer," he says summarily. "I open my mouth — hell, I couldn't go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't love that kind of music and want that audience." Growing up in Start, La., McGraw was as much a fan of '70s AM radio as he was of Merle Haggard, and on McGraw's past tour he performed a surprisingly faithful cover of Tiny Dancer that left Elton John gushing. He has also taken the stage with good friend Kid Rock, an avowed conservative, and recently recorded a hip-hop ballad with Nelly for the rapper's new album. "Tim's supercool, man," says Nelly. "His taste in music is a lot broader than people think."

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