Through the Bro-Country era, Tim McGraw became one of the surprising saving graces in mainstream country music by entering his late career stage doubling back to his roots and releasing quality songs that were surprisingly more country than even some of his earlier stuff, and even finding success with them on the radio.
After wiggling his way out of the iron grasp of Mike Curb and his draconious talent retention program that elongates the contracts of artists indefinitely, McGraw moved on to Big Machine to release some of the best albums in his career in Sundown Heaven Town and Damn Country Music. He even even went #1 and Platinum, and won a CMA for Song of the Year with a Lori McKenna-penned “Humble and Kind” that’s now considered one of the signature hits of McGraw’s elongated career.
But walking away from Big Machine so he could record and tour with wife Faith Hill for Sony Nashville steered Tim out of the groove he’d found, and had him grasping for direction. Once again he started to fall back into his more adult contemporary ways, and there was even an ill-advised rap happy collaboration with Shy Carter called “Way Down” that was pretty universally panned.
This led to McGraw making the very rare move of switching labels after already announcing and selling copies of an upcoming album as part of a ticket bundle. Here on Earth was supposed to be on Sony Nashville, but after a succession of poorly performing singles, Tim ended up back on Big Machine, and releasing one of the better songs on radio right now called “I Called Mama,” which is also performing better than any of the four singles released during his Sony tenure.
In some ways, Here On Earth feels like the tale of two Tim McGraws. You can tell in some moments—especially in the second half of the record—that he’s trying to return to the stuff he found such success with at Big Machine, and that he’s found success with throughout his career like “I Called Mama.” But McGraw also had all these songs he recorded while at Sony Nashville, which was clearly attempting to steer him back towards his adult contemporary days, along with whatever Sony way trying to accomplish with that “Way Down” monstrosity, which thankfully doesn’t even make the new record.
Here On Earth begins with the lush and string-laden “L.A.” that reminds you very much of vintage Glen Campbell. When you combine it with the 9th song on the record called “Not From California” that also finds an orchestral and Countrypolitan style, you can spy the attempt at a cohesive narrative for the record—a simple guy from the country falls in love, swallows his scruples and moves Southern California to be with his soul mate, and ends up leaving after the romance goes south, eventually returning to his country roots.
Many of the songs in between could very well fill in some of the gaps of the story, even if they’re hit (“Good Taste in Women”), or miss (“Sheryl Crow”). Yes, there is a song on this record not only named after the former Mrs. Lance Armstrong, it has the audacity to compare hearing Sheryl Crow on the radio for the first time to falling for the love of your life. Look, even if you love Sheryl Crow, this premise is flimsy at best, and completely falls apart as a country song.
Another unforgiving atrocity of Here On Earth is “7500 OBO,” which takes a very mildly-constructed post Bro-Country premise of having to sell a truck due to the lingering memory of an ex, and combines it with the absolute worst of ultra-contemporary electronic production, doing in any of the meager cool factor the song had to begin with. No, it’s not “Truck Yeah,” but it’s one of those big misses McGraw seems incapable of not including on one of his records, damning his prospects of ever appealing to a more distinguishing crowd, despite some of his quality songs.
Here On Earth is a mixed bag, and is very much framed in divorcee country themes catering to 50-somethings, with soft sounds and stories that range from sappy to sentimental. But hey, Tim McGraw is 53, and age appropriate material is still a better alternative to whatever Keith Urban and others in McGraw’s mainstream age class are doing these days, which is attempting to hold onto their 20’s in terrible songs about clubbing and casual sex.
This feels like a transition record for Tim. With the amount of money spent on recordings coming from Music Row, he had to bring these Sony Nashville efforts to press, even if he had a sense stuff wasn’t going right in the process, and he bailed out near the end. But some decent stuff also made it onto the record. The next to last song “War of Art” pretty much spells it all out.
It’s hard to shine in a sky full of stars
Still be who you are
When you fight the war of art
Tim McGraw’s whole career has been a tug-o-war between a guy that really seems to sincerely want to highlight and perform important and impactful songs, while maintaining his relevance in the mainstream with super hits. But it’s usually the former in songs like “Humble and Kind,” “Live Like You Were Dying,” and “Don’t Take The Girl” where he shines the brightest and has a lasting impact, and songs like “Indian Outlaw,” “Truck Yeah,” and “Way Down” where his star dims in material that doesn’t age well.
Tim McGraw has done something remarkable in mainstream country, which is stay relevant for 30 years. “I Called Mama” will probably carry him into 31. But not much else from Here On Earth is likely to be remembered years from now. However, hopefully after his unsuccessful stint with Sony and another stinker in “Way Down,” Tim McGraw finally realizes where his place is, which is mainstream country’s mildly good and moderately country adult contemporary star who has a knack for selecting and performing really important songs and having success with them. And there’s no shame in that. The shame comes when Tim McGraw tries to be somebody else. He’s not Bro-Country. He’s the antidote to it in the mainstream.