Music News & Reviews

McGraw's 'southern voice' rings true

The confusion stemmed from not recognizing the code of the caps.

Late last October, Tim McGraw began popping up all over television, including a two-night stay on CBS's Late Show With David Letterman, to promote his new album, Southern Voice. There, as he did on the cover of the record — and as he did on most of his albums and concert tours before that — McGraw sported his headgear of choice: a black cowboy hat with a shiny, leathery sheen. At this point, McGraw can just about copyright the look.

So when the country star popped up about a month later on NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in a sweater and tweed cap, looking like a truck-driving Irishman, a few alarms should have gone off.

No cowboy hat. Hmm. Must be a case of reverse psychology in promoting Southern Voice — make yourself look as un-Southern as possible. But no sooner did McGraw shake hands with Fallon than I fell asleep. After all, it was after 1 a.m. I had no business watching TV that late on a school night.

Flash forward to the week between Christmas and New Year's, and a viewing of the ballyhooed (and now Oscar-nominated) Sandra Bullock film The Blind Side. Post-holiday traffic being what it was, we got to the theater just as the opening credits were winding up. As the film unfolds, we are introduced to a well-to-do white family that takes in a homeless African-American teen named Michael Oher, who goes on to become a first-round NFL draft pick.

The strong-willed matriarch of the family is Leigh Anne Tuohy, portrayed by Bullock. The guy playing her husband, Sean Tuohy, looked both familiar and foreign — like a younger, beefed-up Kevin Kline. He played well with Bullock, especially when assessing Oher's background and how it might play into his placement in their family. After engaging in some constructive and good-natured sparring, Leigh Anne concedes to Sean's reasoning: "You're right."

"Excuse me?" Sean asks. "'You're right?' How did those words taste coming out of your mouth?" A solid scene, to be sure. It made checking the final credits essential.

Tim McGraw? That was Tim McGraw playing Sean Tuohy?

My friend looked at me incredulously. "You, of all people, should have known that," she said.

Indeed so, especially since tickets for McGraw's return performance at Rupp Arena had been on sale for three weeks.

Then thoughts went back to the Fallon appearance. That wasn't another plug for Southern Voice. It was for The Blind Side. The country star was in Hollywood mode that night (well, as Hollywood as a Nashville celeb can be when taping a talk show in New York). And such was the code of the caps.

Black cowboy hat indicates a country music endeavor. Anything else might indicate anything else, including an impressive film career that caught fire in 2004 with another football film, Friday Night Lights. There he played an abusive father best described as Sean Tuohy's evil twin.

McGraw will have the cowboy hat firmly in place, and his country persona will be at work, when he hits the stage Friday night at Rupp Arena. The venue has proven a comfort zone of sorts for McGraw. He has played there regularly since performing as a warm-up act for Dwight Yoakam in 1995.

So where does the Rupp return find the offscreen McGraw? Well, Southern Voice's leadoff single was It's a Business Doing Pleasure With You, an oddly cheery, honky-tonk-coated domestic lament co-written by Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger. It's best described as an upscale cry-in-your-beer song ("you've got more purses than Versace, more rings than Liberace") that failed to crack the top 10 of the Billboard country songs chart.

The album's title tune, released as a second single, compensated. An atypically worldly country yarn that name-drops Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Aretha Franklin and other Southern voices that don't exactly pop up on country radio with regularity, Southern Voice (the song) shot to No. 1. A third single, Still, broke into the country top 30 in Billboard last week and is likely to rise far higher.

And the album? Well, it briefly broke the chart-topping reign of Taylor Swift's Reckless by hitting No. 1, although Swift quickly reclaimed the top spot. Southern Voice (the album) sits comfortably in the country top 10.

Curiously, the act now atop the country album charts — and the pop charts, to boot — is the Nashville pop trio Lady Antebellum. Consisting of singers Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott and multiinstrumentalist Dave Haywood, Lady Antebellum shot to No. 1 on the country and pop charts simultaneously this month with the release of its second album, Need You Now. Sade's Soldier of Love dethroned the trio from the Billboard 200 (the pop listing) last week, but Need You Now remains a solid No. 1 on the country chart. Shoot, the group's self-titled 2008 debut, which scored the hit singles I Run to You and Love Don't Live Here, is No. 6.

Not bad for a warm-up act that is drawing up plans for a headlining tour later this year.

Not bad, either, for McGraw, a country star gone Hollywood who has retained a hearty — and bankable — Southern Voice.