Tim McGraw Finally Pitches His Circus Tent

Singer's new album was delayed by release of his Greatest Hits.

NASHVILLE — With Tuesday's release of his new album, Set This Circus Down, Tim McGraw once again relies on a formula consisting of quality songs and evocative performances to continue his reign as country music's leading male vocalist.

After picking up both the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association's male vocalist accolades in both 1999 and 2000, sharing the stage on last year's successful Soul 2 Soul tour with wife Faith Hill, and scoring a dozen #1 tunes over the past decade, the Louisiana native's momentum shows no signs of stopping. His new hit, "Grown Men Don't Cry" (RealAudio excerpt) is currently shooting up the charts.

"When I first heard that song, it killed me," McGraw said. "Every verse in there is a situation somebody can relate to, and songs like that are therapeutic in a way."

In an unusual move for a first single, there is no video to accompany the song. "Videos are, to me, the least thing I like to do of the whole business," McGraw said. "I think it's the hurry up and wait part. We'll do one or two for the album. ... This first single, I just felt like I couldn't do anything out of the ordinary [with a video]. I felt like it was a song that people had a lot of situations in their lives that they could apply that song to."

Songs on the new album run the gamut from the wistful opener "Cowboy in Me" (RealAudio excerpt), to the thought-provoking title tune about assessing priorities, to the emotional ballad "Angry All the Time" (RealAudio excerpt), which features vocals from Hill.

McGraw admits it's totally different from their previous collaborations. Hill discovered the Bruce Robison-penned tune when she saw one of his videos, and she had wanted to cut the song on her next album, but McGraw beat her to it. The couple performed the song on their Soul 2 Soul tour.

"We went to the end of the stage, sitting in old chairs with just little spotlights on us," he said. "The whole stage was black, and I played acoustic guitar. That was it — me and the acoustic guitar and her singing harmony. Then we had a cool video going behind us, sort of a lonely video. This is a great song, and we fell in love with it doing it night after night. We thought it was cool for us to do a song like that since we've never done one on that direction."

McGraw explores a variety of musical territory on this record, saying he wanted it to "make a real Americana kind of record, something that felt grassroots, a lot of different kinds of music, which is what I grew up listening to," McGraw said. "I can do any kind of track, but when I sing, it's going to be country. That's just the way I sing, but I'm a [Bruce] Springsteen fan, a Little River Band fan, a Merle Haggard fan, a Keith Whitley fan, a George Strait fan. I just wanted to go in and make a record that was me and my influences."

McGraw said he's thrilled that Set This Circus Down (RealAudio excerpt of title track) is finally coming out. He had the album ready last winter and wanted Curb Records to release it during the busy fourth-quarter buying season. Instead they released a greatest-hits package, and McGraw made his displeasure known at last year's Country Music Association awards show, charging the label with "money being the bottom line instead of artistic integrity."

On the eve of the new album's release, all parties seemed to have reached somewhat of a truce. "Our priorities aren't the same," he said. "I'll do my job, and they'll do their job, and we'll go on down the merry highway, but they've always sold my records and got them played. So as long as they continue to do that, we'll be fine."

Indeed his relationship with Curb is among the industry's most lucrative, albeit somewhat tense. His last five albums have all debuted at #1 on Billboard magazine's Top Country Albums chart and spent multiple weeks at the summit. Not a Moment Too Soon, which spawned his breakthrough hit "Indian Outlaw," spent 29 weeks at #1 in 1994 and also logged two weeks at the peak of the magazine's 200 albums chart. His 1999 album, A Place in the Sun, bowed at #1 simultaneously on both charts.

It's obvious McGraw has settled into the equally demanding roles of country music superstar, husband and father to 3-year-old Gracie and 2-year-old Maggie. In doing so, he's become comfortable in his own skin, more specifically in his own hair. Promotional photos for his new album will feature McGraw without his trademark black cowboy hat.

"I'm 33 now," McGraw said. "When I first got my record deal I was 23, and when you're losing your hair at 23, it's a lot bigger deal than when you are 33. Now it doesn't matter to me anymore. I liked having the hat on so I could hide behind it."

Fans will get an opportunity to hear McGraw's new songs this summer as he once again hits the road with pal Kenny Chesney, his partner in crime — literally — in the now infamous cops and horse incident in Buffalo.

"I just have to keep Kenny straight out there and make sure he doesn't get into any trouble," McGraw said, laughing.