© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium was quiet and dark on this cold January afternoon. The only sounds were hushed conversations among technicians as they scrolled through images that blazed against a curtain drawn across the T-shaped stage, which stretched nearly the width of the room and projected a runway outward across the arena floor.
This stage would soon be seen by thousands of fans gathered to experience Tim McGraw’s “Southern Voice” tour, which opened mid-February in Omaha and is set to wrap later this summer. But movie fans would see it too, at a climactic moment of “Love Don’t Let Me Down” to be filmed in just a few days, with local extras filling the stands to cheer the performance of Kelly Canter, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Paltrow does her own vocal in this story of a faded Country performer in the midst of a comeback. So do co-stars Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund. The only one of the fi lm’s four headliners who doesn’t sing is the one who actually does it for a living — but there’s a good reason why.
“The minute Tim starts to sing, he steps out of character,” said Shana Feste, who wrote and directed “Love Don’t Let Me Down,” scheduled for a late fall release by Screen Gems. “We’ve been very careful to make sure that didn’t happen. It’s kind of bizarre when we step outside of the set and you see Tim, this gigantic Country star, with everybody swarming around him, because I see him only as an actor. In these intimate environments where we work together, he is an actor first. That’s how I treat him.”
McGraw plays James Canter, Kelly’s husband and manager, whose challenges include guiding his wife’s career at a pivotal time while coping with overtures made toward her by Hedlund’s character.
“He’s three-dimensional,” Feste explained. “His character is very complicated. Out of all the actors we initially discussed for the role, Tim is best able to play shades of gray really well. He’s a very subtle, nuanced actor. I don’t want anybody walking out from the movie dismissing him as either just a good guy or a bad guy, and I knew Tim could deliver that.”
That skill has served McGraw well through a series of film appearances the past six years that include “Friday Night Lights,” “Flicka,” “The Kingdom,” “Four Christmases” and “The Blind Side,” in which he co-starred with Sandra Bullock, whose performance earned her an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Actress in a Leading Role. But it also draws from the discipline involved in making listeners connect quickly with the narrative and protagonists of a song.
“That’s where the similarities are,” McGraw confirmed as he relaxed in a bare storage room at Municipal Auditorium, awaiting his first look at the stage his crew had just fi nished assembling. “In an album, you’re actually creating 10 or 12 mini-movies. You’re asking people to go along with you through these movies, so when you’re in the studio and you’re closing your eyes and you’re singing, you’re trying to find this guy that’s walking through the song and give him a voice. It’s sort of the same thing you do in a movie. Empathy is the main thing you’re looking for, as a singer or as an actor.”
“Tim has incredible instincts at storytelling,” said Feste. “We shot a three-page scene today. It all took place in bed, where he was having a late-night conversation with his wife. My experience as a director is that you would get bored just seeing people talk in bed for three minutes. But because he’s such a storyteller, he did unexpected things and changed the scene with every beat of the story. Right now, I’m thinking it’s going to be one of the best scenes in the movie.”
Country Music fans can testify to McGraw’s ability to tell a story. Having won 11 CMA Awards, sold upwards of 40 million albums and lofted 31 singles to the top of the charts during the past 15 years, he is indisputably one of the industry’s top communicators. His 10th and latest Curb Records studio album, Southern Voice, peaked at No. 1 on the Country chart and No. 2 on the Top 200 in Billboard. His performances take the listener from a private inner world on the current single “Still,” written by Lee Brice, Kyle Jacobs and Joe Leathers, to the inspiration, celebration and unapologetic pride of Bob DiPiero’s and Tom Douglas’ Dixie anthem, “Southern Voice,” the album’s second single and track played during “The Blind Side” credits. It’s not just the song, compelling though it is; it’s McGraw’s immersion in the tune that makes listeners feel that “hickory wind that blows from Memphis down to Apalachicola.”
“One thing about music is that you have to be believable at all times,” McGraw said. “People have to really, sincerely feel your honesty when you’re singing to them. That’s true in acting to a certain extent, but it’s easier for a musician to try to act than it is for an actor to be a serious musician. Even if an actor is being sincere and honest, if they’re trying to play a musician, it’s hard to buy into that; people think they’re acting as a singer. But it’s hard either way. For a singer, the hard transition is that you’re so used to presenting yourself in a certain way, which is to be cool. That’s how you sell your music and your persona as a singer: You’re on … and you’re yourself. When you go to do a movie, a lot of times it’s quite the opposite: Your character is not cool. Nothing you do is cool. It’s a tough transition either way, but it’s very interesting, that’s for sure.”
Other differences distinguish cutting an album from mastering a film role, though in the end both processes lead toward the same goal of reaching the public.
“There’s actually less pressure with the movie,” McGraw said. “When you’re doing an album, you’re finding the songs, you’re in the studio recording, doing vocals and overdubs — it’s all fun. With a movie, once you start shooting, you’ve read the script, you know your character and you’ve done your research on what you want this guy to be. Now that we’ve started shooting, I’ve found my character, I know my lines when I show up on set and we spend the day creating the moments. It’s a lot of fun to create something that’s raw and real and that people can watch and believe.”
That’s the plan for his new tour too. Though impressive, the stage is scaled down from the spectacular setup that McGraw and his wife Faith Hill carted on their “Soul2Soul” and “Soul2Soul II” treks in 2006 and ’07. “I like bells and whistles as much as anybody,” the father of three daughters said. “Sometimes I’ll feel like that’s what we need. But it’s not about trying to outdo — or underdo — my last stage. It’s about what I feel at the moment. I just want people to get back to our music. I mean, it’s tough to say that with a straight face because this is no wallflower stage; it’s very modern and even spectacular. But it has the ability to take it way down and being intimate with the audience is the key to this tour.”
In that sense, the show is structured to reflect the emotions that course throughout Southern Voice. Produced by McGraw, Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith, it addresses themes that span a wider range than on any of McGraw’s previous albums.
“I’m going to have songs that are fun and light and songs that are heavy. As you mature in your life, that does make you think about things. It does make you want a broader palette to paint with. You don’t want to lose the carefree feelings you had when you were a kid but you don’t want to give up the knowledge you’ve acquired along the way. I’m at the perfect age to marry both of those things and not lose either one. I can still go out and do the things I did in my 20s and 30s — except for the partying,” he added, with a quick laugh. “I still have the fun and energy onstage that we’ve always had. And I’m old enough to bring a weight and some insight to it.”
Do his insights include any advice to share with other artists who might consider acting? “The best thing you do is to put really good people around you, people you trust, people who make good decisions and know what they’re doing,” he suggested. “And make your artistic decisions with your heart. Successful artists have to do both of these things. They have to think with their head when the time is right, and they have to cut that off and use their heart when that time is right. But if there’s any advice to be given to artists who want to do movies, I’d say go with your heart. If you find something you’re passionate about and you feel you can relate to it, then do it. You never know until you try.”
Tim McGraw will be performing on Thursday, June 10 at the LP Field Concert Stage during the 2010 CMA Music Festival, which takes place Thursday through Sunday, June 10-13 in Downtown Nashville.