By Alicia Dennis
February 11, 2013 12:00 PM

With his three daughters hustled off to school, Tim McGraw spends an afternoon tucked inside his Nashville home juggling multiple business calls and doing what the country singer does best: teasing his wife, Faith Hill. “I have tried working out a couple of times with her and afterward, I can’t move,” says McGraw, who sometimes joins Hill at their home gym to burn calories. When asked about her routine, McGraw jokes, “It’s like, leg warmers and Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’… ” A high-pitched giggle from Hill interrupts McGraw, forcing him to set the record straight: “Faith says it is nothing like that.” McGraw then pauses before going on, “But yeah, it’s me with my headband on and leg warmers …”

For McGraw, there was a time when embarrassing Hill was no laughing matter. The country superstar, 45, admits he was drinking and partying to an extent he felt was out of control. “I wasn’t a beer drinker. I was more a whiskey drinker. And I wouldn’t just have a drink. If I was going to drink, I’d have some drinks,” says McGraw. “People were worried about me. It was to the point where I felt it was negatively affecting my relationships and getting in the way of things I wanted to accomplish in life. So I quit.” Sober since 2008 (“I don’t drink at all; it’s not a part of my life anymore”), McGraw has traded whiskey for weights and is gearing up to release his new album Two Lanes of Freedom (out Feb. 5) in the best shape of his life. “My workout program took the place of alcohol, and it’s really important,” says McGraw, who now boasts a swoon-worthy eight-pack thanks to an intense pretour workout (see box). But aside from getting fit, “I felt like I had to change my life.”

It’s a change that’s not only done a body good. It’s also helping things in the relationship department. “I am probably less embarrassing to her now!” says McGraw with a laugh. As his 17th anniversary with Hill, 45, approaches, he says, “We are connected. We like spending time together.” Aside from their “date days” when they steal time away to go out to lunch or a matinee, the pair is also co-headlining their Soul 2 Soul show in Las Vegas, where they belt out hits and get tangled up in love ballads. “We forget how cool it is to perform together,” McGraw says. “Sometimes, we get lost in it, we get lost in each other.”

In the past, getting to the mic wasn’t easy for McGraw. “Drinking helped me get past the wall of shyness and self-doubt,” says the Grammy winner. “I ran into a lot of problems after a show where you wanted to keep the party going. I had to relearn how to do a show without alcohol.” Enter the sweatbands. When he’s out on tour, McGraw commits to a two-hour workout in the morning and another two-hour session in the afternoon. So now “when I hit the stage, my adrenaline is going and by the time I come off the stage I’m ready for bed because I’m exhausted,” says McGraw, who trimmed off 40 lbs. from his 6-ft. frame and toned up his physique. “I was always in pretty good shape but for awhile I let it go a little bit. There are aches and pains but I feel pretty young.”

He has a similar outlook on his professional life. “I feel like I am in the prime of my career, and there is so much more ahead of me,” says McGraw, who recently jumped to Big Machine Records-home to country-pop sensation Taylor Swift, a guest artist on Freedom alongside McGraw’s longtime pal Keith Urban. The Blind Side star is also considering possible film projects for this fall. “With the kids’ schedules and my touring, I have to see how the timing is going to be,” he says.

As always, McGraw focuses on what’s best for his girls-Gracie, 15, Maggie, 14, and Audrey, 11. “The driving force for me to be healthy and fit is ultimately for my kids. I want to be around for them,” says McGraw. That’s in part born out of his rocky upbringing in north Louisiana where he was raised by his mom, Betty, and his stepfather, Horace Smith. Though McGraw discovered his biological father was baseball star Tug McGraw when he was 11, they didn’t form a bond until later in life. “I had a great mom, but because of the turmoil I grew up in, I knew early on what I didn’t have as a family,” he says, “and I knew when I had a family they deserved a happy environment.”

Even if Dad is the odd man out at home. “The main thing I have learned being in a house full of women is saying ‘yes ma’am’ or nothing at all,” he says. “There are times I throw my hands up and wonder what in the world is happening!” Right now McGraw is savoring his Sunday nights at home watching Downton Abbey with his family before embarking on a 30-city tour in May. “I am firing on all cylinders,” he says. “I’m in a good place all around. I don’t feel like this is as good as it’s going to get-but I feel like I’m better than ever.”