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Tim McGraw hits the highway: 'Two Lanes of Freedom' signals new deal

The country superstar puts legal hurdles behind him with a new album and tour

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

Tim McGraw / ©Green Room PR
Tim McGraw

Tim McGraw uses words like "optimistic" and "fresh" to describe his new album, "Two Lanes of Freedom," but in a way he's also describing his current attitude about his career.

Now free of a protracted and well-documented legal dispute with his former record label, and freshly signed to hot indie label Big Machine Records, McGraw says of his career, "I just really feel like I'm pulling out on the pavement and grabbing another gear. There's so much more ahead of me."

That attitude is reflected in his first Big Machine release, "Two Lanes of Freedom," which hit stores Feb. 5 and will be supported with a 30-city tour this spring and summer. Here, McGraw discusses the album, its high-profile guest stars, connecting with his fans onstage, and what it was like to have his "coal train" taken away.

MSN Music: Dissecting the album title a little bit, what does the word "freedom" mean to you at this point in your career?

Tim McGraw: It really means looking ahead in a lot of ways, not being caged by the past, not being caged by where you've been, what you've done. It's more about just opening a door and looking outside.

If country music was an eight-lane highway, what lane would you be in?

Probably somewhere left of center would be my guess. [Laughs] The great thing about country music is it's probably got the most lanes and the broadest highway of any genre of music out there, especially now. There's just so many styles of music involved, and so many different varieties and so many great artists. That's what's so enchanting about country music right now, and always has been.

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With a new record contract and label, you had a blank canvas to paint with for this album, and every color on the palette available to you. What did you want to "paint" with this project?

I start out my process always with a sound, how I want the sounds to be, whether it be kick drums or keyboards or guitars. I start this whole process in my head of how I want it to sound, and then I start listening to songs ... and start dragging these songs and these sounds together to see what works. It takes on a new life when you get to the studio and they feed off each other.

But more than anything I wanted it to be an optimistic feel to it, not necessarily in subject matter, but more sonically, a freshness. This record's got a 360 sort of vibe to it. It certainly reflects what I've done musically [in the past]. There's a little bit of that in there, but it also sort of spins around on itself and looks forward to where I may be going and what paths lie ahead, where my music's heading.

After 21 years in the business, and with more than 40 million albums sold, you've said recently that you feel like you're only 35 percent of the way into your career. What do you hope to accomplish with the remaining 65 percent?

I just want to get better. I'm just starting to learn what it is that I do. I'm starting to get a handle on how to do this musically, not discounting anything I've done. I've felt like at whatever particular time I was in the studio, I've always had a good grasp of what I wanted to do. I just think I'm really digging in now ... I feel like I'm just getting started.

New This Week: Tim McGraw's new album

You have a couple of high-profile guests on the album track "Highway Don't Care": Taylor Swift singing and Keith Urban playing guitar. Why did you choose to collaborate with them?

I love Taylor. I think she's an important artist, a rare artist that only comes along every so often. Her voice is special. Her songwriting ability is incredible, and her sense of style is just amazing. ... I wanted her on the record because of that, and our history together and what I think of her. I knew that her voice would be perfect for it, and I liked that it wasn't a love interest part of the song. That really made it a special duet.

Keith I'm just a huge fan [of]. I've always been a fan of his, artistically, as a singer, [and] songwriter, but his guitar playing is unparalleled. He's one of the best guitar players in the world. We've been friends for a while. I have a lot of respect for him personally. We've always looked for a song to do together. You never want these things to be forced. There's several times we could have just grabbed a song and went and done it. But this, organically, seemed [like] the right fit.

Bing: More on Tim McGraw

In an interview with Billboard, you talked about the last six years being the most difficult of your professional life as you struggled to get free of another record contract ...

It's tough to sort of, artistically, be stifled a little bit. That was the toughest thing, feeling like you're in the prime of your career, and you've worked really hard to build a position for yourself, and it's about you and your family and your future. To feel like somebody's screwing around with that is tough to deal with. You want to keep your engines fired. You want to keep pouring coal on the fire, and when somebody takes your coal train away, it sort of bothers you.

What was your reaction when your previous label dropped an album full of your previously released duets ["Tim McGraw & Friends"] on top of the release date for "Two Lanes"?

I didn't know about it until a couple of weeks before, and there's nothing I can do about it. All I can do is put the music out that I've made and hope that the fans don't blame it on me.

How much more legal wrangling is left to go between the two sides in this dispute?

All the [stuff] about what I can do with my career is done. I think now it's just a matter of them claiming some sort of damage, and I think that they damaged me.

I don't care about any of that stuff now. I wanted to get my career back on track and do the things that I wanted to do musically. All the other stuff doesn't really matter.

Photos: Tim McGraw

What's in the works for your upcoming Two Lanes of Freedom tour?

We're in the middle of designing the stage now, which is always fun. I love that. Part of you wants to say, "I don't want a stage. I just want to turn the lights on and go play," but it's a fun visual for the audience, and it's fun for us. We like all that stuff because it makes us feel like rock stars when we're up there and we've got all these cool things onstage.

It's all part of the fun and part of the environment we're creating, but ultimately, you want to go out and just have this contract with the audience that you're all going to give into this environment. You're all in the same boat here together. We're all here to enjoy it. We're all here to get lost in the moment, and you want to have this invisible, intangible connection with them about that. You're both agreeing to give in to the music and let that take care of the night. That's really what you look for when you go out on tour.

Why did you choose Brantley Gilbert and Love and Theft as your tour openers?

I want the most energy I can get out there. I want guys who I respect, guys who I feel like are on the come-up, doing great things. Brantley's music just blows off the radio. The energy that he has is really spectacular. He's had a great couple of years. The same with Love and Theft. I really love their new single ["Runnin' Out of Air"]. It's just really fresh-sounding to me.

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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