The Clinton Of Country

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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"

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These adventures in being a uniter, not a divider, have raised McGraw's Q rating and brought him new fans — he is particularly popular with women — but they haven't changed the sound of his albums. That's because the people he counts on to vote with their wallets are diehard country centrists. On Live Like You Were Dying, there are traces of McGraw's love for the Eagles, James Taylor and even Robert Johnson, but they are faint traces. Most of the material has an edgeless, generic quality, both musically and thematically. Like most other country artists, McGraw sometimes writes his own songs, but unlike those others, he never records them--"because they're never any good," he says. He insists he would rather feel someone else's pain than express his own. "If you sing a song and tell somebody how you feel, that's good," says McGraw. "But if you can tell somebody how they feel, that's great. If you can get some old boy driving down the road in his pickup truck to kick the radio and go, 'F___! How did he know?' then you're really doing your job."

McGraw is not totally risk averse — a neutral mention of abortion on his 2002 hit Red Ragtop was a country watershed — but in general he is too cautious and too willing to compromise his individual perspective to be considered a significant artist. It's a shame, given that his biography is rich territory: he was born dirt poor, he discovered as an adolescent that his father was the late big-league pitcher Tug McGraw, and he was rejected by almost every record label for being too ordinary before becoming a star when Curb Records finally took a chance on him in 1992. But McGraw is still somehow greater than the sum of his songs, in large part because, while his message can appear calculated, his charisma is authentic. In concert, when he gets a chance to blast his exuberant Everydudeness to the back row, he can make even the most conventional music seem inspirational. He has, as TIME's Joe Klein wrote in frustration and admiration of Clinton in The Natural, the "ability to charm almost anyone under any circumstances."

While he waits for the right time for his Senate run, McGraw is doing the other thing that people with big personalities do. Director Peter Berg cast him as an alcoholic father and ex-athlete in Friday Night Lights, a high school football drama starring Billy Bob Thornton (due Oct. 15). "I didn't know if he could act," says Berg, "but what we were looking for was somebody who would just seem real to an audience. And Tim does that. You look at him, you believe what he has to say." McGraw thinks he simply fell into a part he could do without stretching. Hollywood interests him, but only a few minutes pass before his mind drifts back East, flying right over Nashville toward what may be his truest calling. "It'd be great to be in a position to do something good for people," he says. "Wouldn't Faith make a great Senator's wife?"

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