Mike Lipton
August 30, 2004 12:00 PM

Everybody having a good time so far?” Tim McGraw calls out to a group of fans backstage during a recent stop on his summer-long Out Loud tour. McGraw clearly is, slapping high fives against every palm within reach before settling down to sing a couple of tunes for some lucky radio station contest winners. Yet for all the country star’s ebullience, the new CD the tour is promoting, Live Like You Were Dying, began on a far sadder note.

Last January, shortly after his father, former Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw, succumbed to brain cancer at 59, Tim McGraw showed up to rehearse the album’s title track with his band, the Dancehall Doctors. “The first time we played [the song],” recalls the band’s percussionist David Dunkley, “Tim said, ‘Here’s one for the young left-hander.’

Every one was silent afterward.”

McGraw, 37, who, with his wife, singer Faith Hill, 36, nursed his father through his final months, has remained tight-lipped about Tug’s death. “Tim keeps a lot of things to himself,” says his longtime producer Byron Gallimore. But seeing his father die at a relatively young age shook him badly, says Gallimore. “That’s one of the things he talked about—the shock.”

Today McGraw is philosophical. “Everybody has to deal with stuff in life,” he says. “I’ve had great support. My mom, my sisters, my wife, my friends. My battle wasn’t nearly as hard as the battle [my dad] was fighting, so…” His voice trails off.

His father’s passing “was extremely hard,” says Hill. “But you just have to keep working. Fortunately, music is a great therapy.” McGraw agrees: “Music sets me in a world that’s comfortable for me to talk to people and sing to them. There’s no weight there [onstage]. That’s the one time there’s no weight at all.”

Some burdens are easier to bear than others. McGraw smiles when he talks about the oldest two of his three daughters—Gracie, 7, Maggie, 6, and Audrey, 2—with Hill. “It was the first year for both of them going to school,” he says. “Maggie was in kindergarten, Gracie was in first grade. It was traumatic, man. You resist the urge to drop by the school 20 times a day just to make sure everything’s okay.” Even though Out Loud will keep him on the road into the fall, he and Hill have long had an agreement not to be apart for more than three days in a row. “The first priority is learning how to work around the family,” says Hill. So McGraw flies home to Nashville after most concerts. “I’ll be there in the morning to take the girls to school,” he says, “and then I’ll leave around noon on show days.”

He and Hill sing together “all the time around the house,” he says. “She always tells me not to sing harmony, because I can’t sing harmony to save my ass. She’ll go, ‘You know better than that!’ ” The harmony in their marriage makes up for it. “They just truly are so in love with each other,” says Gallimore. “They’re confident about how firm their relationship is.”

They must be, because in October McGraw hits the road again, this time to promote his supporting role in Friday Night Lights, a high school football drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. It’s only McGraw’s second movie (after Black Cloud, a Rick Schroder-directed indie film yet to be released). “I play sort of an abusive, alcoholic father,” he says. “He was very convincing,” says his pal Thornton. Though McGraw asked him for acting tips, “I said, ‘I’m not going to help you. You’re going to be fine,’ ” says Thornton. “He’s as good as a lot of actors I’ve worked with who’ve done this for years.”

For now McGraw is sticking with his day job. Strutting before nearly 18,000 fans in San Antonio, he sings the new CD’s title track (which went to No. 1 July 17) as a single shot of Tug McGraw on the pitcher’s mound appears above the stage. “I didn’t want to do anything overt,” McGraw says. “But knowing what a ham he was, I know he would’ve enjoyed being seen there.”

By Mike Lipton. Michael Haederle in San Antonio

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