Tim McGraw has positioned himself to be the bold alternative for what has been coined as “bro-country” with his latest Sundown Heaven Town album. Despite testing out the critically-slammed single “Looking For That Girl” (originally intended as the first release), he turned a 180 with “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” a guitar-pinned ballad about the good old days, and featuring background vocals by his wife Faith Hill. “In a world gone crazy as this,” the lead single certainly sets the tone for a project that is steeped more in stories than grooves (although varying degrees of the latter are present throughout). What is more refreshing, though, is, with the support of Big Machine Label Group’s founder and CEO Scott Borchetta (who has also championed the high-octane work of Florida Georgia Line and Justin Moore), McGraw bucks trends unabashedly. He comes across more as a pioneer here than on his previous Two Lanes Of Freedom, a comeback album which leaned far more country-pop (with a dash of hip-hop) than this new one.
But instead, the singer, who boasts a 20-year career, digs well below the surface and demonstrates a tremendous perspective. On such track as “Overrated” (a steel guitar-tinged anthemic piece), “City Lights” (a nuanced, all-encompassing love-strewn mid-tempo) and “Shotgun Rider,” which he has tested several times in his live shows and late-night TV performances (a polished, emotionally-charged soft-rock track), he’s clearly learned his lesson (following such bizarre singles as “Truck Yeah” and “Feel Like A Rockstar”). As the first three tracks on Sundown, McGraw showcases the kind of material mainstream terrestrial radio has been missing the past few years. Despite such male artists as Brad Paisley, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley offering quality additives, there’s also been an egregious hole sucking up the creative oxygen.
Later, McGraw enlists his cousin Catherine Dunn on one of the album’s more-blistering moments, on “Diamond Rings And Old Barstools.” As collaborations go, the song harkens to the greats; Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers, Johnny and June Carter Cash. With it’s haunting, yet infectious melody, it is deftly glued together with enough guitar and drums to forge a truly beautiful recording. “Words Are Medicine” (with a nostalgic, ghostly atmosphere) and “Sick Of Me” (spirited in both lyrics and arrangement) achieve the same level of substance, hinged on real stories about real people.
Of course, there are a few rhythm-focused tracks, such as “Keep On Truckin'” (an empowerment fist-pumper) and “Last Turn Home” (underpinned with a hip-hop drum track), which allows McGraw to examine his diverse influences. But even with these (and on “Portland, Maine”), country instruments are captivatingly gripped in the front, allowing the lyrics to wrap neatly and his vocals to shine. Throughout Sundown, McGraw keeps a tight rein on his delivery, never over-baked and lingering in the air like a knife. As far as commercially viable and authentically and creatively assorted projects go, the hat-wearing singer has done country music a real service and delivered.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Shotgun Rider,” “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools,” “Words Are Medicine”
Image Source: Jeremy Scott for Country Outfitter, BMLG