“I feel there’s way more ahead of me than behind me,” Tim says. “It’s just sort of an open road. I’m really only 35 percent into what I’m here to do musically.”
Released today (Feb. 5), Two Lanes of Freedom is Tim’s first record on his new label Big Machine Records (he had been signed to Curb Records since the mid-1990s). It’s his 12th studio record overall.
Switching to a new label, he says, doesn’t necessarily affect the recording process–writing and finding songs, cutting them in a studio–it’s more about support after the fact. “You don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen with the music, how it’s going to be presented.”
But he does admit that this new energy from the business side may have an indirect impact on the recording itself. “I’m sure in a certain way that backwashes into the making of the record, and the feeling of the record. And we certainly felt like we had a weight off our shoulders when we went in there to record it.”
Tim speaks with authority and intelligence, and he’s both friendly and direct when answering questions. He’s also noticeably unafraid to talk about the creative process behind Two Lanes of Freedom–, which, again, clearly indicates the excitement he feels for this project.
For starters, he pinpoints one song in particular as driving the ‘feel’ of the album: the title track, “Two Lanes Of Freedom.” Which is also the first song on the album.
“The first or second night in the studio we recorded that song,” Tim tells Radio.com, “and instantly it raised its hand as being the flagship of this album–sort of the hub sonically of what this record was going to sound like.”
“It has that sense of freedom to it, that sense of reckless abandonment.” It also has an “optimistic feel” and “a freshness” that can’t be denied. “Every sound that you can pinpoint on this record was influenced by that song. That’s why it’s the name of the record, that’s why it’s the first song on the record. It just sets the tone for the entire album.”
And speaking of “sound” and “tone,” how a song sounds is something particularly vital to Tim. In fact, it’s often where his records begin.
“Foremost, I’m looking for great songs,” he says, but “my process starts out with sounds. I start getting these sounds in my head of what I want…maybe a particular kick-drum sound or snare sound. A particular keyboard or guitar sound. That’s the process that I start when I start thinking about a new record. And then I start finding songs, and start thinking, ‘OK, how can these sounds be incorporated into these songs?'”
He explains, though, that this process isn’t always exactly the same each time–and it’s often a two-way street. “Sometimes I might hear a song, and it might make me think of a different sound. Or I might have the sound already and it fits the song.”
Bringing this concept back around to Two Lanes of Freedom, are there specific sounds on the record that were buzzing around his head early on in the process?
Tim doesn’t hesitate. “The kick drum in ‘Two Lanes of Freedom’ was a sound I had in the back of my mind and I really wanted to have on this record, and it fit perfectly. The keyboard sound in ‘Friend of a Friend’ was really important to me. The guitar tones in ‘Southern Girl’ were something I wanted.” Same goes, he says, for “the horns in ‘Mexicoma,'” which “fit perfectly with that song.”
The fact he chimed in with specific details so quickly, and had so many examples at the ready, shows just how vital this part of the process is for him. “I think you could probably pick out every song and there’d be something.”
Tim proves to be a friendly, engaging, and versatile conversationalist. He can dive straight into studio talk, and get technical, but at the same time he’s also philosophical–a deep thinker. Take, for instance, his description of the song “Number 37405.” It’s a powerful song, written (by Tom Douglas and Troy Jones) from the perspective of an incarcerated man who is feeling deep remorse for the turns his life has taken.
“That was one of the first songs I had for the record,” Tim says. “And I really just fell in love with it lyrically. The perspective it’s told from is something you don’t hear very often. Certainly by the grace of God, so many people could be in that situation.” Because of that, he says, the song “can cause you to think differently. Not only about that certain situation, but other things in your life.”
The song also stands out for its structure and arrangement. Particularly, notes Tim, the outro. “I wanted that outro to be long, because I wanted to create a thought process. After you finished that song, I didn’t want the song to just ‘end.’ I wanted you to have time to reflect. Not only about what the song said, but just in decisions you’ve made in your life. How they could have turned out one way or the other.”
And then there’s “Highway Don’t Care,” a powerhouse anthem that serves as the closing song on Two Lanes. It’s been a much-anticipated song, too, as it features Taylor Swift on vocals and and Keith Urban on guitar.
“I’m a huge fan of Taylor’s,” says Tim. “We have a history, going back to her first song,” which was titled “Tim McGraw.” He calls her talent “special” and “rare,” and he praises her “sense of style” as well as her songwriting and “beautiful vocals.” He says he wanted her on the song right from the get go, “because I thought it fit her vocal perfectly, and I liked where it’s set in the song. And I liked that it wasn’t a love interest in the song. It was sort of this third person interjection.”
In “Highway Don’t Care,” Taylor is heard as a voice on the radio as the main character is driving. Which, in retrospect, makes it something of an answer song to Taylor’s “Tim McGraw”–a song where Tim served as an unintentional third person in the narrative. “It does tie back to the same sort of theme that her song had–I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it that way,” admits Tim.
I sang with Tim McGraw on a song on his new album- it’s called ‘Highway Don’t Care’ and it’s out now and I’m psyched about it- check it out?
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) February 5, 2013
As for Keith, Tim says the two of them “had been looking for a song to do together for a long time. And we would still love to sing a song together. But these things have to happen organically, and they have to fit the right moment. And I thought with Taylor’s singing and Keith’s great guitar playing, this was the perfect song for all of that combination.”
Tim is also just a fan of the song itself (it was written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, and Brad and Brett Warren). “It’s a track that has sort of a timeless feel to me. It’s something that felt like I could have heard it ten years ago, and I could hear it ten years from now as well.”
But, of course, he’s a fan of all the songs on Two Lanes of Freedom–or else they wouldn’t be there. For him, much of what makes music (of any genre) potent and worth coming back to can be summed up with one word: honesty.
“In the country music world, there’s always been a history of having a close connection with your fans. But I think you have to be honest with your music first and foremost. And I think that’s what music fans respond to.”
“Any time you record songs or perform live”–or, he says, produce creative work of any kind–“you have to be willing to give up a piece of your soul with it. And I think that’s how fans respond to it. You’re not just phoning it in. You’re giving them something.”
Two Lanes of Freedom is in stores now, and Tim McGraw’s Two Lanes of Freedom Tour (with Brantley Gilbert and Love & Theft) will kick off this May. Tim will also be featured in a Superstar Summer Night TV special to be taped in April after the ACM Awards.
– Kurt Wolff, Radio.com