Tim McGraw

Tim McGraw headlines the Boots and Brews Country Music Festival on Oct. 14 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

(Photo courtesy of Tim McGraw)

Tim McGraw originally planned to go on tour to promote his latest album, Here on Earth, in 2020. But the universe had an issue with that, as the COVID pandemic hit and the world shut down. So he’s obviously been excited to finally get to tour again this year.

“I guess this will be six years since I’ve done a solo tour. The last tour was Faith and I together,” McGraw said, referring to the Soul2Soul tour he did with his wife, Faith Hill, in 2019. “And [I was] getting ready to tour before COVID hit. It’s one of those things I’ve been anxious to do for a long time. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without ever doing a tour in probably 30 years. I’m used to working.”

As it turned out, McGraw and Hill ended up being quite busy during parts of the pandemic, thanks to the opportunity to star, first for a guest appearance on the hit show Yellowstone and then as lead characters in the Yellowstone prequel, 1883.

This was not a project that the husband and wife were anticipating as they settled into COVID life.

Trading the stage for the film set

“It came about pretty organically,” said McGraw in a phone interview. “I was on the couch one day just watching TV, and one afternoon my phone rang and it was a number I didn’t recognize. Typically I don’t answer those calls. You never know what it’s going to be. But I answered it, and the voice on the other end said ‘Hey, is this Tim McGraw?’ And I said ‘Who is this?’ And he says ‘This is Taylor Sheridan.’ I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, I just got a phone call from Taylor Sheridan.’”

Sheridan is the co-creator and writer for Yellowstone. McGraw and Hill were big fans of the show, which is based around the lives on a Montana ranch of John Dutton (played by Kevin Costner) and his family and the threats and challenges that come with their ranching business. Sheridan was calling to see if McGraw wanted to guest star in an episode or two of the popular show.

“I said ‘Well, I love the show and I’d love to do it, however it’s got to be the right part,’” McGraw said, recalling the conversation. “I don’t want to be some singing cowboy that gets taken to the train station and gets off. If you come up with something interesting and cool, I’d love to talk with you about it.’ He goes, ‘Give me two weeks.’ So two weeks later he called and said ‘I’ve got it. You’re going to be the original Dutton. We’re going to do a flashback episode or two. You’re going to be the original Dutton that founded the ranch and that’s what we’re going to do.’ I thought ‘Well, that sounds cool. Write it up and let me read it.’ Then a week later he wrote it up — before he sent it to me he called me and said ‘You know, you’ve got a wife in there. Do you think Faith would be interested in it?’ I asked Faith and she said ‘Sure, why not? Let’s do it,’ because in our minds it was going to be a couple of flashback episodes.”

McGraw and Hill went to Montana for three weeks of filming, then returned home and got on with their lives. But a couple of months later, Sheridan called again saying the studio wanted to buy a full season of 1883.

McGraw, who has had lead roles in the movies Flicka and Country Strong as well as supporting roles in movies such as The Blind Side, Friday Night Lights and Four Christmases, was intrigued. But he wanted to see some scripts, and once they were written, the idea of doing 1883 became a lot more real.

“He [Sheridan] is one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading his stuff. It’s so poetic and the world that he created in the writing that he wrote for this script blew us away,” McGraw said. “Faith and I had to sit down and go, you know what, if we pull the trigger on this, we’ve got to know people are going to be gunning for us and people are going to be looking for us to fail and going to be looking for every little mistake we can make on it because we’re not supposed to be doing this. So if we do it, we’re going to commit whole-heartedly. We’re just going to get lost in it. We sort of gave each other a high five and said ‘Let’s go kick ass.’ That’s what we did.”

Back on tour

The 1883 series has been well received, and McGraw and Hill, who portray James and Margaret Dutton as they take the journey west and establish the Dutton ranch, have generally gotten good reviews for their work. Another batch of episodes is now in the works.

But much of McGraw’s focus recently has been on music. He’s completed his summer tour, and now has some scattered dates on the books. He’s put together a career-spanning set list he hopes will take fans on an emotional journey. He doesn’t figure to over-feature songs from Here on Earth.

“We’re doing the single off of the album now, ‘7500 OBO,’” he said, mentioning the single from the deluxe edition of Here on Earth. “So we’ll be playing that one. But there’s only so much that we can play . . . So you sort of have to pick and choose one or two off of each album, you know, one top 10, one number one, one top five, one that didn’t make the top (40), all sorts of things. We go all the way back to my very first album and play one song off of that. We’re trying to sort of give a breadth of my career.”

“The best song has to win”

Between shows he’ll likely be working on his next album, which figures to extend an unbroken string of major success. It began with his second album, 1994’s Not A Moment Too Soon, which became that year’s best-selling country album, thanks in large part to the chart-topping singles, “Don’t Take the Girl” and “Not A Moment Too Soon.” He’s released 15 more studio albums since then, 10 of which have joined Not A Moment Too Soon in topping the country album chart. Of his 75 singles, 30 have reached number one and only nine have failed to go top 10.

McGraw said he has recorded about a dozen tracks so far for the new album, which would put him about mid-way through his usual recording process. Although he writes songs, McGraw expects that, like his other albums, the vast majority of songs will come from outside writers.

“I haven’t recorded a lot of the things I’ve written because I’m pretty hard on myself as a writer,” he said. “And my philosophy is always, the best song has to win. I feel like I’ve built my career on finding great songs. I always want to put together an album where my least favorite song on the album could be the best song on anybody else’s album. That’s sort of my philosophy when I’m putting together an album. That’s not to diss anybody else because I’m a big, huge fan of all other music. It’s just one of my philosophies, the way I approach it, the way I look at it.”

Tim McGraw headlines the Boots and Brews Country Music Festival on Friday, Oct. 14, 3-10 p.m. He is joined by Michael Ray, Bailey Zimmerman and Dave Rea. Surfer’s Point Live at Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura,