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Country star Tim McGraw travels back in time to '1883' with wife Faith Hill

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day holiday. We're going to listen to my recent interview with Tim McGraw, one of the biggest stars in country music for years. Lately, though, it's an acting role that's getting him attention. He stars with his wife, singer Faith Hill, and Sam Elliott in the Western TV series on Paramount+ called "1883."

It tells the story of a large group of Eastern European immigrants trying to make their way in covered wagons from Texas to Oregon to start new lives. They know little about horses, wagons or America. And they're led in the journey by experienced cowboys, including the characters played by Elliott, McGraw and LaMonica Garrett, all veterans of the Civil War. The pioneers face every conceivable hardship and plenty of tragedy realistically depicted in the production, which the cast shot on location over five months in Texas and Montana. The series is a prequel to the successful Paramount+ series "Yellowstone," which is about the descendants of McGraw's character in modern-day Montana. All 10 episodes of "1883" are available for streaming. McGraw's previous acting roles include parts in the movies "Friday Night Lights," "The Blind Side" and "Country Strong."

Tim McGraw has been recording No. 1 country albums since 1994 and has won three Grammys and 14 Academy of Country Music Awards. He's also a celebrated performer. His tours with Faith Hill have been some of the biggest-grossing tours in country music history. And he's also the son of the late major league pitcher Tug McGraw, though he didn't connect with his father until late in his childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Tim McGraw, welcome to FRESH AIR.

TIM MCGRAW: Thank you, sir. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: This series, "1883," is a story about these immigrants, as I mentioned, most of whom don't speak English and, in some cases, can't speak to each other. And those who agreed to lead them on this dangerous journey, the characters of Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett, who's a Black cowboy. Your character, James Dutton, is a little different from those two. You want to describe him, what his role is?

MCGRAW: Yeah. James comes from Tennessee. And he was planning on making this journey alone with his family. You know, right from the beginning, when you see James and he's trying to get to Fort Worth to get supplied and everything, bringing everything they had from Tennessee and get set to go on their trip, he's already in a gunfight getting chased by bandits. And, you know, he shoots six people right in the first couple of scenes of the show.

(LAUGHTER)

MCGRAW: This is just to show the danger that he was in. He suffered. He was trying to outrun ghosts in a lot of ways, I believe. He was in the Civil War. It was a war he didn't believe in and certainly everything that was going on, you know, during Reconstruction and after Reconstruction and how terrible things had gotten after the war. And I think he was trying to find a clean place that was unsoiled by everything that he had gone through and everything that he knew for his family and a place that he could feel like that he'd gotten past all of that.

DAVIES: You know, as I watched - and I wanted to keep in mind scenes that I could use in our interview - one of the things I noticed is that he's a man of relatively few words. There's not a lot of long monologues.

MCGRAW: Right. Right. Thank goodness. No.

(LAUGHTER)

MCGRAW: No. He's - you know, he's certainly a person to the point when he has something to say. He doesn't mess around. And he's not some big poetic speaker. He talks the most to his wife and his daughter, for sure. And his main concern is the safety of his family. And that's why, ultimately, I think, after a few things that happened - you know, his daughter is attacked and almost raped by a drunk guy, and he ends up shooting that guy. And I think he starts to realize what he's really gotten himself into, what he's gotten his family into. And that's the point that he decides to sort of team up with Sam and LaMonica's characters and help this wagon train. And I think as the show develops, you see - everybody has different arcs in the show, which I think - which makes the character arcs in the show - which makes it so interesting when you - how you see everyone change. And I think you start seeing the concern and the care that James starts taking with everybody in the wagon train, not just his family.

DAVIES: Right. They're all together. Well, I want to listen to a scene, and this will take just a little bit of setup here. I mean, this is after your 18-year-old daughter, Elsa, had - she'd fallen in love with one of the cowboys on the drive. And then he was killed when the group was attacked by bandits. Elsa sees this, sees him die, and then in her fury, shoots and kills the one bandit who was captured alive and was being held by two members of the party. After that, she is in a trading post a few days later, and a guy gives her a salacious stare. She pulls a weapon, nearly shoots him. And you, as her dad, are concerned about her being caught up in this rage. So what we hear is - it's nighttime. Elsa is on her horse watching the cattle, this 18-year-old daughter of yours. And you ride up to give her a life lesson about violence and hate. And in doing it, you refer to your experience in the Civil War. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "1883")

MCGRAW: (As James Dutton) I'm going to tell you a story. You're going to listen. I think I've earned that right. Hope I have.

ISABEL MAY: (As Elsa Dutton) I'm listening.

MCGRAW: (As James Dutton) First man I killed - he was just a boy, younger than you. The reason companies have flagbearers is so soldiers know to stay with their group, and generals on the hill can track the progress of the battle. So much dust, smoke and battle. Fighting in a fog. It's hard to make out the enemy. Can't tell your man from theirs. But you can always look up and see the flags. So we shoot flagbearers first. And I did. That boy's face was burned in my brain. My whole world seemed to stop as this boy's looking right at me. By the end of the battle, I killed so many men I couldn't remember what that boy looked like - still can't. That man you shot was already dead. Whether we hanged him or he bled out, his time on this earth was done. You did not kill him. You understand? Meanest thing you can do to yourself is hate somebody else. I know what it feels like to hate the world. You don't want to feel it, honey. Be sad. Miss him. Cry yourself blind. You leave hating to me.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Tim McGraw, in the Paramount+ series, "1883," giving his daughter a life lesson. It's a powerful scene and, I have to say, beautifully written by Taylor Sheridan, who did the screenplay.

MCGRAW: Absolutely. I mean, he - the writing in this entire script was just part of what drew Faith and I in and so - be so passionate about all the actors. We were so passionate about the writing and the storytelling that it just - every day we all showed up just really wanting to live up to what Taylor had written and what the script says and how great it was because it was - it had those - all those beautiful moments. And it had tons of those kinds of moments. I mean, that moment right there you just played, I mean, it hits me - it was hitting me hard just listening to it. I never just really listened to it. I had only seen it when we'd finished the show. But it's full - the whole series is full of moments like that in the writing. Certainly, in the narration of - our daughter, Elsa, she narrates the entire show. And her narration, it's pure poetry throughout the entire show.

DAVIES: And as I understand, the crew spent five months together shooting this on location, mostly in Texas, then in Montana. There's a lot that goes on. Like, you actually drive wagons across a river, which was dangerous in 1883 and is still dangerous. How hard and dangerous did it all feel?

MCGRAW: Well, the wagons, I think, was the most dangerous part of it, for sure. And we spent a lot of time - you know, we all spent probably around three weeks at cowboy camp, you know? Everybody - a lot of people hadn't ridden before or done anything like that before. So the wranglers there were so excellent in teaching everybody. I was lucky that I grew up riding horses. I grew up in Louisiana. And my stepdad was a cowboy. So I could ride before I could walk. So I had plenty of experience with horses. So that was - it was - for me, it was just fun to get back on it and get going again. But the wagon-driving was something completely different. I'd never done that before. And Faith had to do that the most. That's what - that was her main sort of thing that she did while we were shooting was drive that wagon. And she was driving that wagon across that river. And that happened to be - it was probably 36 degrees out, freezing cold. I was, you know, up to my waist on the horse in water. And it was probably 3:30 in the morning. And it was our 25th wedding anniversary when we did that scene crossing that wagon (laughter).

DAVIES: Oh, my - wow. Wow.

MCGRAW: And I was more afraid for her than I was anything, of course. But it was a - she handled it like a pro. She became pretty proficient at it.

DAVIES: So you know, you and your wife, Faith Hill, are playing, you know, a couple in a mature marriage, which you have. I mean, you'd been married for a quarter of a century when you did this. Did it affect your relationship at all? Did it feel like hand in glove? Or were you inventing something new in dealing with each other?

MCGRAW: Well, that's an interesting question, you know? I think the best way that I can answer that - and it's probably not a direct answer to your question, but it might give you a sense of what I'm trying to say. You know, when we got the scripts, the way we read the scripts, they would come in, and we would get maybe two or three at a time. And we would alternate taking turns. We'd lay in bed. And she would read the entire script. And then I would - like, Episode 1, for instance, she would - we'd lay in bed, and she would read the entire script out loud. And then I would read Episode 2 out loud. But we never sat down, and we never rehearsed our lines together. We never rehearsed scenes together because we wanted - we didn't want to bring so much of Tim and Faith into our characters. We wanted it to remain Margaret and James. Now, maybe some of Margaret and James got into Tim and Faith sometimes while we were shooting.

(LAUGHTER)

MCGRAW: But we really wanted - we thought, you know - look; when we sat down to sign the contract, when we committed to doing this because we fell in love with the script and, you know, the whole - all the deal points got right, we were - I remember, we were sitting on our patio. And I looked at Faith. And I told her that, you know, once we sign this, we are no longer the boss (laughter) anymore. We're hired help. And secondly, we're never going to have a comfortable day. And it's going to be really hard work, and it was. It was, you know, 14-hour days, six days a week. And we probably got 3 hours of sleep a night.

And I said, and thirdly, you know, it's going to be tough for people to accept us in these roles. I mean, first off, they're going to think that we're not going to be up to it. Secondly, they're going to think they can't get past it, the two of us together on screen, because we had never been on screen together before. She'd done a couple of movies. I've done a few movies. So we'd never been Tim and Faith on screen. So we have a lot of obstacles to overcome. And then I looked at her, and I said, you know, the only way to beat that is - and she said, just go kill it. And I said, that's right; let's just go kill it. And that's - we gave each other a high five and a kiss and signed the paper.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with country singing star Tim McGraw. He stars with his wife, Faith Hill, in the new Paramount+ Western series "1883." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL WELTLINGER'S "GHOSTS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with country music star Tim McGraw, who's also had several acting roles. He currently stars with his wife, Faith Hill, along with Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett, in the new Paramount+ TV Western series "1883."

You know, you've had several movie roles before. Did you take acting lessons? How did...

MCGRAW: I didn't. I probably should.

(LAUGHTER)

MCGRAW: But it's probably too late now. No, I didn't, you know? And, you know, I always loved movies as a kid and, you know, did - like every kid, did a couple of plays and stuff like that when you're a kid. But I was always an athlete, so that was really where my focus was at. But - and then when - you know, when I started having some hit records, you know, then those offers start coming to you. And I was interested in doing movies. I always was interested in it. But my biggest fear was - and I didn't do one for a long, long time. My biggest fear was, look; I've got success here. The worst thing I can do is go be bad at something else and then ruin the success that I have over here. So it took me a long time to actually find something - I mean, I read a lot of scripts. But it just - I never could make myself pull the trigger until I read "Friday Night Lights." And I just, instantly when I read it, it's like, I know that guy, right? I know that character.

DAVIES: You play, basically, an abusive dad who storms onto the field because his son had dropped a pass. I mean...

MCGRAW: Right.

DAVIES: You know that - how do - you know that character, how?

MCGRAW: Well, I mean, I came from a pretty dysfunctional family, you know, early in my life and saw a lot of abuse and dealt with a lot of abuse.

DAVIES: Like, your dad was that character in a way - your stepdad, excuse me. Yeah. Yeah.

MCGRAW: My stepdad was - he could be the sweetest guy in the world. And he could be that guy, too. So - and, you know, he had drinking problems. And, yeah, I mean, he was partly - certainly partly there. But it was also, growing up, playing little league and football and stuff and seeing - you know, I grew up in Louisiana, remember, in sort of - you know, in a rural community. And which was - it was a beautiful and great community. But, you know, those guys were around, and you saw them quite a bit. And I've seen those things happen. Anybody that's been around little league ball knows that those parents sometimes can be (laughter) some of the worst.

DAVIES: You just hope that's - he's not the coach because sometimes he is (laughter).

MCGRAW: Exactly.

DAVIES: You grew up in Louisiana, you mentioned. And your stepfather, who was the guy you thought was your father as you grew up, was a truck driver - right? - a cowboy.

MCGRAW: Cowboy, truck driver, yeah.

DAVIES: Tough guy.

MCGRAW: I mean - tough guy, yeah.

DAVIES: They split when you were about 10. You know, people who know you know that you're, in fact, the biological child of Tug McGraw, the major league pitcher who pitched for the Mets and Phillies, brought a championship - helped bring the championship to Philadelphia in 1980. How did you learn that he was actually your dad?

MCGRAW: You know, it was totally by accident. You know, my stepdad and my mom divorced, and we had just moved and - I guess it was about six months after the divorce. We were - maybe a little longer than that. You know, it's hard to get time right. But we'd moved in with my grandparents for a little while. Then we finally moved into a house in rural Louisiana. And I was going through a closet for some reason. I found a box, and when I opened the box, my birth certificate was in the box. And it had - it was - everything was printed out on it except for the last name. It just - there was just one line through it in pen, in handwritten ink pen, just one line and a Smith written in cursive above it. But it had my dad's full name. It said his occupation was professional baseball player, and it was - you know, it was pretty much a shock (laughter) when you find something like that. And I thought there had been some sort of mistake.

And oddly enough, I had three baseball cards on my wall. I can't remember the first one. One was Cesar Cedeno, and the third one was Tug that I had up on my wall because he was one of my favorite players, believe it or not. And I don't know that that was something that my mom subconsciously pointed him out to me or if he just became my favorite player. I don't know how that happened. He just - you know, but every - he was a lot of kids' favorite player back then because he was such a character.

DAVIES: I mean, the story, I guess, is that, you know, he was a minor league baseball player in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1967.

MCGRAW: Jacksonville, yeah.

DAVIES: And he had a relationship with your mom, who was, I guess, still in high school then. And you were the result. And he moved on, and she moved on. What was it like when you met for the first time?

MCGRAW: Well, it was unusual, for sure. What had - you know, my mom, it was her - she didn't finish her senior year because she'd gotten pregnant with me. So sort of the family in Florida sent her to Louisiana to live with relatives. And I was born in Louisiana. But after I'd found my birth certificate, I called my mom. She was at work. And I asked her what it was - this was all about. And she - you could just feel an audible gasp and heart failure, you know, from her when I told her. And she said, I'll be right home. And she got home, and she said, let's go for a ride. And we got in the car, and we just drove around, and she told me the whole story. She didn't say anything - tell him that she was pregnant. She, you know, moved to Louisiana. On the day I was born, my grandmother called and actually called and got him in the Mets dugout just to say that - just to tell him I was born. And that was it. That was the only communication he ever had.

And so when I found the birth certificate, I just told Mom that I wanted to meet him, as any kid would. And she got in touch with his lawyer, I believe, and said that I'd found out. So Mom borrowed a car because she didn't have a car that could make it. And we drove to Houston. And he left us a couple tickets, and we got to go into the game before and watch batting practice. And I remember tossing the ball with him a little bit, watching batting practice. And I remember he gave up a grand slam when he came in at the game I saw. And I only saw him pitch...

DAVIES: Maybe a little distracted (laughter).

MCGRAW: Yeah, but I only saw him pitch twice. And that was the first year. So we had a lunch, and he goes, you know, we can be friends, but I don't know if I'm your dad or not. You know, I'm not sure about any of that, but, you know, we can be friends. So I left. The next year, I wanted to go back and see him. And of course, Mom being a great mom, she arranged to get tickets, and we drove to Houston again. And I had - she had gotten me a McGraw shirt with Phillies colors and had the name on the back and his number and everything. So I was wearing that, and he was in the bullpen. And back then at the Astrodome, the warm-up spot where they would throw at the bullpen, you could go right up next to it. And I remember going over and walking and standing right in front of him and yelling, hey, Tug; it's Tim. I'm back. I'm going to see - and he ignored me the whole time, and that was the last time I saw him.

DAVIES: Oh, gosh. Well, we need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with country singing star Tim McGraw. He stars with his wife, Faith Hill, in the new Paramount+ Western series "1883." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MINNER AND MIKE COMPTON'S "HANGIN' DOG")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, and we're speaking with country music star Tim McGraw, who's also had several acting roles. He stars with his wife, country singer Faith Hill, along with Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett, in the new Paramount+ TV Western series, "1883." It's the story of some veteran cowboys leading a group of Eastern European immigrants hoping to get from Texas to Oregon by horse and wagon. All 10 episodes are available for streaming. When we left off, McGraw told us how he'd learned at the age of 11 that his real father wasn't the truck driver his mom had divorced but a famous athlete, big league pitcher Tug McGraw. Tim met Tug McGraw after that discovery, but it didn't lead to an ongoing relationship.

You did connect later on when you were, like, 18 or so, I guess, right?

MCGRAW: Yeah. When I was 18 and I graduated high school, I'd had a few scholarship offers - nothing major. You know, I wasn't the biggest kid in the world, but I was a good athlete. But I knew Mom was going to have trouble paying for college. And so I asked Mom, I said, you need to get in touch with Tug's attorney and find out about getting college paid for or at least helping us pay for college 'cause I don't want to put that burden on you. And she kept trying and kept trying and kept getting the runaround, kept getting the runaround, kept getting the runaround. And then right before I ran on the field for my last high school football game, she stops me, right - you know, right before you run through the paper sign, you know, when you're all jacked up. She stops me, and she goes, I got papers from Tug's lawyer today. And I'm like, oh, gosh, don't tell me this right before a football game, (laughter) my last high school football game.

So right out - at least I had a good game that night - and got home and read the papers, and it had agreed to just a minimal amount of money and helping just a little bit, but I could - I never could use the name, and I couldn't ever make contact with him again. And I looked at Mom, and I said, all right, I'll sign all of this, but he has to see me one more time. And so they agreed that we would meet one more time and then that - we would sign the contract, and I'd be out of his life forever.

And so we drove again to Houston. So he hadn't seen me since I was 11 years old. And I remember walking into the lobby of the hotel, and I'm - was the same height as him at that point. And my mom pointed and said, there he is right there. So I just walked right over and tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around. And the first thing that I noticed, more than anything, was his lawyer's jaw hit the ground because we looked almost exactly alike (laughter). So it was like - he was like, oh, my God, we're screwed (laughter).

And so we talked, and we spent the day together, had dinner that night. And I - Mom and I and he were having dinner, and I asked Mom if she would mind letting Tug and I talk for a moment alone, and she wasn't too sure about that. And I told her that it was OK; it was fine. And so she got up and left, and I just looked him in the eye, says, look; as far as I'm concerned, this dinner's over. This - all this mess is over with. I'm going to sign your contract. I just want you to answer one question - do you think you're my dad? And he says, I know I am. And I said, that was all I needed to know. And then he said, we're going to tear the contract up. And so we did.

DAVIES: Wow. You know, I've seen in a documentary about your life, Tug McGraw describing that moment. I think it's the same moment. And when he can barely say he wanted to know, can I call you dad? - that's what I think he remembers you saying. And it choked him up. You developed a real relationship, and unfortunately, he died young from brain cancer when he was just 49.

MCGRAW: Fifty-nine, 59, yeah.

DAVIES: Oh, is that right - 59? That's right - same age my dad died. Right. One of the things that's interesting about this to me is that, you know, the odds of two people, you know, who share genes, both being really successful in two different fields are pretty remote. And one thing you can see about Tug McGraw as a pitcher - that - everybody watched him - was that he wasn't just a great athlete. He was a performer. He was - he brought a lightness to it - I mean, you know, just lifted people's spirits and joked a lot. I - there was something about him, I think, that was an entertainer, too.

MCGRAW: Yeah. You know, he brought a boyish enthusiasm to the game. Like, he made you feel like every little kid that falls in love with the game from the beginning. And he always had that sort of love and that sort of vibrance (ph) about baseball. And he was just such a fan of the sport and so grateful to the sport and always had such a love for it.

DAVIES: Did you feel that you had the relationship that you wanted before he died?

MCGRAW: I wouldn't say that we had a father-son relationship. If we did, it was more me being the father (laughter) of him, the son, if we had a father-son relationship at all. We got close. We were good friends. I mean, his older brother - my Uncle Hank - we're close to this day. And my two brothers that live in Philly from Tug - we all have different mothers, but we're close. And my sister, Cari, who's Tug's daughter - we're close. So everybody's close. And we got close. You know, when he was dying, I spent a lot of time with him. He wanted to come to a cabin on our farm, and that's where he wanted to spend his last days. And so we got to hang out with him and spend a lot of time with him. I think the biggest - if you can call it regret that I have is the time that we got to spend together as he was dying. I sort of waited for him to say something about the whole situation, some sort of - just have a conversation about it. And we never had that conversation. So I'll always sort of feel like I missed that part of it.

DAVIES: As I understand it, you did go to college and then at some point just were having so much fun playing and singing that you decided to move to Nashville and seeing if you - to see if you could make a go of it, right?

MCGRAW: Yeah, I did. I went to Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, which - well, now it's called University of Louisiana at Monroe, but at the time it was called Northeast Louisiana University. And it was only 10 miles from home, 12 miles from home. But, yeah, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was a good student in high school. Sure enough, I pledged a fraternity and became a Pike and picked up a guitar in my first summer of college and started learning songs. And by the end of the summer, I had a repertoire of about 50 songs. So I started playing for tips at a local restaurant. And then I put a band together. And then there was less and less of going to class and more and more of going out and playing music at night until it became unsustainable on the class level. And I remember I sold everything I had. I sold my car. I sold my shotguns. Everything that I had, I sold. And I was going to buy a bus ticket to Nashville and have enough money to be in a hotel for a couple weeks if I needed to.

Before that, I had to call my mom and let her know that I was dropping out of school, which scared me to death because I knew she didn't graduate high school because of me. She didn't get the opportunities in life that she wanted because of me because I was born, and she had that responsibility, and she had to - she was in an abusive relationship, probably because she thought she needed help and needed the support. So all of these reasons, she wanted me to succeed, and I wanted to succeed for her. And so I was scared to death to call her and tell her I was going to drop out of college. And when I finally got the nerve to do that, I called her and said, Mom, I'm just letting you know that I'm dropping out of college, and I'm moving to Nashville to play music. And there was silence on the line. And, of course, I expected the, you know, hell no, you're not. But what I got back from my mom was, well, I'm surprised you haven't done that already. And she said, and you need to go do it; otherwise you'll always wonder if you could have made it.

DAVIES: Well, yeah. It worked, I mean, not overnight, obviously. But you got there eventually, got, you know, a contract with Curb Records, did a first album, self-titled - not a big hit. But then the second and third really took off. And, you know, you became a big thing. I want to play one of your better-known tunes. This is something that you hear in your concerts a lot. This is - well, people might recognize this. I know you will.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE IT, I LOVE IT")

MCGRAW: (Singing) Spent $48 last night at the county fair. I threw out my shoulder, but I wanted that teddy bear. She's got me saying sugar pie, honey darling and dear. I ain't seen the Braves play a game all year. I'm going to get fired if I don't get some sleep. My long-lost buddies say I'm getting in too deep. But I like it. I love it. I want some more of it. I try so hard. I can't rise above it. Don't know what it is about that little gal's loving. But I like it. I love it. I want some more of it.

DAVIES: And that's "I Like It, I Love It" from our guest, Tim McGraw. You know, you can go on YouTube, and there are at least a half a dozen videos posted by fans of you performing that song in huge arenas where they sing every chorus. I mean, it's interesting. You know, country music has its own kind of style in a way. I mean, you have this - you got to have the voice that hits and holds the notes. But, you know, it's putting the emotion into the song, you know, the right places to whine a little on a line. I mean, I'm wondering, in developing your voice coming up, did you model it after anyone?

MCGRAW: You know, gosh, I don't know that I modeled it. Just like any kid, you know, I listened to the radio all the time. I can remember driving a tractor and listening to the radio. I mean, I loved country music. I listened to it all the time. But I also loved pop music and rock music, too. So, I mean, I was hugely influenced in my record-making and probably vocally a little bit, I hope, I wish I could sing like him - by the Eagles. They're probably all - my all-time favorite band in music of anything. Merle Haggard certainly was a big influence on me vocally. George Strait, Keith Whitley, Alabama - wore Alabama out when I was a kid - I mean, the band Alabama. I just couldn't get enough of those guys. So yeah, all those guys influenced me. But, you know, Phil Collins is another one that's fantastic and I love. And I think all that stuff sort of finds its way into my music.

I mean, we're all sort of a product of our environment - right? - and the stuff that we listen to and the stuff that we absorb and sort of turns into this sort of goulash that you're able to put together and get out. And that's - I guess that's sort of the way my music developed is it's sort of this mixture of all the things that I loved as a kid growing up and still do now and stuff that I listen to and hear now, stuff that I would never have heard unless I had, you know, four teenage girls that I was taking to cheerleader practice in my car, and I would hear it and go, wow, that's an interesting sound and stuff. You know, just finding different - you know, when you're making a record, you're finding different sounds and different tones and stuff like that.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with country singing star Tim McGraw. He stars with his wife, Faith Hill, in the new Paramount+ Western series "1883." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS SONG, "THAT LONESOME ROAD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with country music star Tim McGraw, who's also had several acting roles. He currently stars with his wife, Faith Hill, along with Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett in the new Paramount+ TV Western series "1883."

So Faith Hill, you met when you were both on tour. You were both seeing other people at the time. Did you know right away this was it?

MCGRAW: Oh, gosh. I knew right - instantly. I knew the first time I saw a picture of her that I was in love. Our tour, it was my first headlining tour, and I asked her to be - asked her not personally, but my management asked her management if she would open the tour, and she agreed. And it was called the Spontaneous Combustion Tour, believe it or not. So we did a show - a little before our tour started, we did a festival together, which was the first time we'd ever spent any time around each other.

And so we used to do "The Joker" by the Steve Miller Band. It was our encore song. And we used to do this thing where we'd all get at the front of the stage, and we'd do a sort of slide guitar kind of thing. And we're doing that, and I feel a presence behind me. And I turn around, and it's Faith, and she's doing the slide with us. And I turn around to look at her. And I said, OK, boy, something's up here. And, you know, she was in a relationship. I was just getting out of my relationship. We started our tour. And we went about - I don't know - I guess it was a little over a month, two months. And I finally just - I walked into her dressing room one day and just kissed her. I couldn't help myself.

(LAUGHTER)

MCGRAW: And then, you know, she had to untangle herself.

DAVIES: Yeah.

MCGRAW: And by the end of the tour, we were married.

DAVIES: How did you propose? Do you remember?

MCGRAW: I tried to propose a couple of times, but she didn't take me seriously. But I remember the time - when she said yes and I was really serious about it was - I want to say we were in Montana. But we were at a big outdoor country music festival. And they had set up these trailer houses that were our dressing rooms. And she wasn't playing. She was just there with me, riding along with me. And I have a - I had a road case. It had a mirror and some clothes hanging in it. And we're standing there, and I'm just about to go on stage in this little trailer house with, you know, 50,000 people out there at this festival. And I probably had a beer in my hand. And I stopped right before I got to the door, and I looked at her and says, I am serious as I could ever be in my life; I want you to marry me, and I want us to get married as soon as possible. And she goes, what? She said, you're crazy; I can't believe you're asking me to marry you at a country music festival in a trailer house.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCGRAW: And I just laughed and walked out the door and did my show. And when I walked back into my dressing room, on my mirror she had written in lipstick yes, with a big exclamation mark - says, I am going to be your wife.

DAVIES: Wow. And it stuck for 26 years. Wow.

MCGRAW: It stuck for - and I still have that mirror, too, by the way.

DAVIES: Oh, wow (laughter). You both had careers. You did three tours together, the Soul2Soul tours, which were huge things. I thought we'd listen to one of the songs that the two of you recorded together. This is not about a happy couple. It's "Angry All The Time." You want to just say a little bit about this song before we hear some of it?

MCGRAW: Yeah, this is one of my favorite records that we ever made, one of my favorite songs that we do together. It's just so haunting and heartbreaking. And it's just one of those songs you sort of get lost in when you're performing it.

DAVIES: Right. It's about a man and - a husband and wife whose marriage just has failed, and they're talking about where they are. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGRY ALL THE TIME")

TIM MCGRAW AND FAITH HILL: (Singing) Our boys are strong now, the spittin' image of you when you were young. I hope someday they can see past what you have become. And I remember every time I said I'd never leave, but what I can't live with is memories of the way you used to be. The reasons that I can't stay don't have a thing to do with being in love. And I understand that lovin' a man shouldn't have to be this rough. And you ain't the only one who feels like this world's left you far behind. I don't know why you gotta be angry all the time.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Tim McGraw, and his wife, Faith Hill, singing "Angry All The Time" - boy, what a voice.

MCGRAW: She is one of the absolute best singers in the world. She just blows me away every time I'm on stage with her. I always compare it like a NASCAR trying to keep up with an Indy car.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCGRAW: She just is - she's special, for sure.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did it change your life in music? I mean, obviously it changed your life when you got married. But did it - do you think your music changed when you started performing with her?

MCGRAW: Oh, for sure. I certainly got better. I mean, I became a better musician, singer, performer because she's fantastic at all those things. I mean, especially when we have to sing together, when we do tours together, I mean, I don't want to get the evil eye from her when I'm off key trying to do harmonies with her (laughter), so it makes me stay on my toes.

DAVIES: This is something that happens?

MCGRAW: Well, you know, I've gotten a look every now and then when I haven't been keeping up. But it makes me step up pretty quick. But she's just - I mean, I'm in awe of watching her on stage every time. I always say that she's like Aretha Franklin, Brigitte Bardot and Janis Joplin all rolled into one...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCGRAW: ...When she's on stage and performing, the way she sings.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tim McGraw. He stars with his wife, Faith Hill, in the new Paramount+ Western series "1883." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with country music star Tim McGraw. He stars with his wife, Faith Hill, along with Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett in the new Paramount+ TV Western series "1883."

You've raised three daughters. They're now - I guess they're all out of the house. I think your - Gracie, the oldest, got a master's from Stanford recently, right?

MCGRAW: Our middle, Maggie, got a...

DAVIES: Oh, OK, Maggie.

MCGRAW: Yeah.

DAVIES: OK. Right. Yeah. You know, parenting when you're a celebrity can be a challenge. And in your case, both parents are celebrities. I'm wondering, you know, you've got a lot of demands on your time. You're traveling on tours, whatever. Did you set firm rules about how you wanted to handle the kids and their relationship to your careers?

MCGRAW: We did. We wanted to give them the most normal life that we possibly could or at least make them feel as normal as they possibly could. And so - and fortunately for us, we were in a position that we had already had a great amount of success before we had our children, so we could call the shots pretty much. We didn't have to go do every little thing in the world just to keep our careers going or to keep the lights on or anything. We'd both had very successful careers. So when we got married and we had Gracie, we decided that, you know, I was only going to tour - well, I toured the most. Faith toured a little bit. When they were young, they were always going to be with us. We always had them with us, no matter where they went. And once school started, I would only tour in the summertimes when school wasn't going on. And Faith pretty much didn't tour at all unless we were touring together. And when we toured together, we would take them with us.

And then when I was working as they got older, even, you know, if something backed up into the spring a little bit or I had a show that was in the spring or the fall - most of it wasn't - then I wouldn't leave home till 4 or 5 o'clock, and I would fly to the show, and I'd be home at 2 in the morning. So I was there when they woke up every morning. I was there when they got home from school every day. I coached little league ball. I coached softball. I coached basketball. I mean, I think I can count on one hand the things that I might have missed with them growing up. And we're pretty much homebodies and, you know, cook dinner every night when the girls were in school. So they would come home, and there was something cooking all the time. So we tried to give them as normal a life as they could have. And they turned out - probably more to their mother's credit than mine, but they turned out to be just remarkable, smart, talented, gracious young ladies. I mean, I couldn't be more proud of them.

DAVIES: You quit drinking and got into a serious kind of exercise and health program when you were in your early 40s or so. You have a book about this turn to health called "Grit And Grace." And it's not so much about drinking, although you mention it. It's more about just living a healthier life. And you write that a few things made you decide to get in better shape. One of them was going to a movie with your oldest daughter, Gracie. Tell us about this.

MCGRAW: (Laughter) And I still haven't seen that movie to this day. It's called - the movie is called "Four Christmases." But we went to another holiday movie when that movie was just coming out. It was a movie I did with - I forget the names of everybody, but it was a Christmas movie I did. So we were at another movie, and the trailer for "Four Christmases" came on, and my face popped up on the screen. And at that point, I think I was 215 pounds when we shot that movie, and I'm 170 now, so it was quite a difference. And my oldest daughter - my face popped up. She goes, geez, Dad (laughter). You got to do something. And it was like, oh, my gosh, my daughter just noticed that I looked like [expletive].

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Oh, man. You started with just walking every day and then got into serious weight training. And this book kind of takes you through the steps, and there's food recipes. You got in remarkable shape with all that weight training, et cetera. The little detail I love is reading that, when you would go touring, you know, you have these huge tractor trailers with you that follow the band that have all this gear and video stuff and instruments and sound equipment, but there's a separate trailer with - well, you describe it.

MCGRAW: Well, we - it's a gym. We carry our own gym around, and it slides out. And it's a pretty big gym, and it's full of equipment that we bring outdoors, too. So when we're touring, it's usually - for me, it's a three - I'm in way better shape when I'm on the road touring. I stay in shape. You know, I do my couple of hours every morning at home, and I stay pretty close anyway. But we really fine-tune it when we get on tour. And we'll do a workout in the gym in the mornings. Then we run the arena or the stadium stairs and do a discipline at the top of each stair. And then we'll eat, and then we'll take about an hour and a half, two-hour break. And then at around 3 o'clock or so, we'll start our CrossFit with the ropes and...

DAVIES: Tires.

MCGRAW: ...Kettlebells and tires and sledgehammers. And so we'll start a circuit - sort of a mix between cross-training and circuit training that we'll start outside. And that usually goes for an hour and a half, sometimes two hours. And it starts with just about everybody. But by the end of it, there's about four left.

DAVIES: I was going to say, who is the we? Is this your band? Is it the roadies? Who is this?

MCGRAW: It's the band mostly, but some of the crew guys jump in there as well. And sometimes the opening acts jump in there and go with us as long as they can. And then I always end it with an ice bath at the end of it...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

MCGRAW: ...And then go take a shower and get ready for the show.

DAVIES: So you do this, I mean, this really serious, strenuous workout, and then you perform? That's the way you do it? (Laughter).

MCGRAW: Yeah. I mean, then you don't get that missing-out syndrome at the end of the night when you still want the party to keep going and you want to stay awake because by the time I hit the bus, I'm ready to go to sleep. So it keeps the old guy sleeping well.

DAVIES: Well, Tim McGraw, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MCGRAW: My pleasure. Good talking to you.

DAVIES: Country singing star Tim McGraw stars with his wife, country singer Faith Hill, in the new Paramount+ TV Western series, "1883." All 10 episodes are available for streaming.

On tomorrow's show, David Sedaris talks about his new collection of personal essays. Several are about his lifelong combative relationship with his father and what it was like at the end, when his father was in assisted living and the ICU. He died one year ago at age 98. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PISANO'S "LIMEHOUSE BLUES")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN PISANO'S "LIMEHOUSE BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.