First Listen

First Listen: Tim McGraw, 'Emotional Traffic'

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Tim McGraw's new album, Emotional Traffic, comes out Jan. 24. i i

hide captionTim McGraw's new album, Emotional Traffic, comes out Jan. 24.

Courtesy of the artist
Tim McGraw's new album, Emotional Traffic, comes out Jan. 24.

Tim McGraw's new album, Emotional Traffic, comes out Jan. 24.

Courtesy of the artist

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If I were directing a Tim McGraw biopic, I know who I'd cast to play the popular country singer: Kyle Chandler, known to discerning television junkies as Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights. In his music, McGraw projects a personality similar to that of the show's beloved patriarch. He's the dad you wish you had, warts and all, wringing inspiration out of challenging moments, rendered more human by the knocks life has given him. With a voice that can go from earthy to angelic in a single phrase and a back catalog that shows serious growth over two decades, McGraw is a star with substance, a guy whose glamorous life never seems that far from down home.

When that biopic gets made, of course, McGraw could also just star in it himself. He's a hot Hollywood commodity now, specializing in supportive-hubby roles in big movies like The Blind Side and a self-described "Blue Dog Democrat" whose power marriage to Nashville queen Faith Hill regularly lands him in supermarket magazines. McGraw's work is well-known beyond the realm of country devotees — except, ironically, for his best-selling but still strongly Nashville-identified music.

Emotional Traffic could change that. This impeccably chosen set of ballads and booty-shakers — finally getting an official release after McGraw's legal dispute with his label kept it under wraps for nearly two years — shows his range while it honors contemporary country's paradigms. Working with his longtime partner Byron Gallimore, McGraw has fashioned a collection that's both sophisticated and sweetly sentimental, with some satisfying twists.

It might surprise people, for example, that McGraw duets with R&B star Ne-Yo in the delicate "Only Human" (a line from that tune gives Emotional Traffic its title), or that he reaches back into the R&B archives for a version of the Dee Ervin stomper "One Part Two Part," also once covered by Americana mainstays Buddy and Julie Miller. But that's Tim McGraw at 45: an artist confident enough in his mastery of a form that he has no problem pushing through its doors.

That's not to say that Emotional Traffic is a huge departure for McGraw. Fans of contemporary country ought to feel comfortable with its consummate catchiness. Most tracks were written by well-regarded Nashville hitmakers, and the arrangements and playing show the crafty attention to detail listeners expect from Music Row's pros. Yet McGraw's insistence on quality material and his subtle way of shaping a story lift Emotional Traffic into a different category than the average hat project.

The guitars that waft heavenward in "Halo" recall Coldplay — perhaps McGraw's a fan after starring in Country Strong with Chris Martin's wife Gwyneth Paltrow — but its tale of a dissolving love affair is country rough, and the combination surprises. "I Will Not Fall Down," co-written by Martina McBride, is a cell-phones-raised anthem on par with her 2011 anthem "I'm Gonna Love You Through It." The contemporary gospel number "Touchdown Jesus" begs to be covered by Mavis Staples. Good-time songs like "The One" and "Felt Good on My Lips" gain character from little touches — a funky backbeat that inches toward hip-hop, lyrics that update honky-tonk truisms for a 21st-century South, full of liberated women and multicultural dance floors.

Then there's the capper. "Better Than I Used to Be" is one of those timeless tales, smelling like worn leather and held-back tears, that could have appeared on Merle Haggard's Kern River or an album by McGraw's early inspiration, Keith Whitley. Seasoned honky-tonker Sammy Kershaw did record the ballad in 2009, but McGraw claims it with a wrenching, matter-of-fact performance. "I'm cleaning up my act, little by little," he intones in the chorus, confidence building syllable by syllable. "I ain't as good as I'm gonna get, but I'm better than I used to be." As Coach Taylor always said: Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose.

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