Interview: Country Singer Tim McGraw

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New York – “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,” Tim McGraw, 37, tells TIME’s Josh Tyrangiel. “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?” remarks McGraw about his singer wife Faith Hill.

It’s no accident that McGraw has turned his professional obligation into a campaign whistle-stop. “I love politics,” McGraw says. “I love Bill Clinton. I think we should make him king. I’m talking the red robe, the turkey leg—everything.” And McGraw 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.” He is 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, writes Tyrangiel.

“I’m a country singer,” says McGraw. “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.” 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.

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.”

“McGraw 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,” writes Tyrangiel.