Tim McGraw talks with C&I about the importance of family.

Samuel Timothy Smith, better known as Tim McGraw, the reigning king of country music, is playing outside with his three daughters: Gracie Katherine, age 9, Maggie Elizabeth, 8, and Audrey Caroline, 4, and six of their girlfriends from school. They have ridden over on McGraw’s bus from the family farm in Leipers Fork, Tennessee, to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend the Soul2Soul II tour performance — the first time McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, have toured together since 2000. Tickets for the Birmingham concert in late May sold out in 15 minutes. By the time they play Las Vegas in early September, the couple will have performed in 70 cities for more than a million fans.

Yet it’s the three girls drawing trees and flowers on the sidewalk with wash-away chalk that come first. And so the tour has been planned, as everything else in Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s lives, around school schedules, so that their daughters can travel with them. “They’re old enough now to put to work,” McGraw says, laughing.

McGraw waves and calls to his wife, who is unloading something from the bus. She is Audrey Faith Perry, or as the public knows her, superstar Faith Hill. “I’ll never forget when I first saw her,” McGraw recalls. “No words could describe how I felt. I thought, She’s so out of my league. I couldn’t imagine she’d ever speak to me, much less date me and end up marrying me.”

Then in 1996, traveling America on the Spontaneous Combustion tour, the most successful country tour of that year, Hill was his supporting act. “After a couple of months, we knew we really liked each other,” McGraw says. “In eight months, we were married.”

Today, the couple is coming up on their 10th anniversary. Their Soul2Soul II tour is drawing crowds and rave reviews. McGraw’s latest CD, Tim McGraw Hits Vol. 2: Reflected just became his ninth album to debut at No. 1. And he’s got a starring role in 20th Century Fox’s Flicka, to be released in October.

For Tim McGraw, it’s been one wildly successful ride.

Born In Delhi, Louisiana, McGraw grew up in nearby Start, Louisiana, where his mother, Betty, worked three jobs to make ends meet — managing a restaurant, doing accounting work, and arranging flowers in a flower shop. Between the ages of 3 and 6, McGraw spent time on the road with his stepdad hauling cottonseed across Louisiana while listening to 8-tracks of Charley Pride, Charlie Rich, and Merle Haggard, whom McGraw considers the best singer ever. “I listened to all kinds of music and liked it all,” McGraw says. “It was the radio that turned me on to country, R&B, blues, and all kinds of music.”

Music was an integral part of McGraw’s childhood. “My mother liked to sing, and my granddad played the violin,” he says. “I was in a musical, The Music Man, when I was in the second grade. Later I bought a guitar in a pawnshop and began to teach myself to play.”

McGraw also sang in his church choir, but playing sports was his main focus. “I loved sports, all of them — baseball, basketball, football,” he says.

When McGraw was 11, he learned that his real father was major-league baseball player Frank “Tug” McGraw, whose baseball card he had pinned on his bedroom wall. “I was sneaking a look in my mother’s closet, trying to find Christmas presents I knew she sometimes hid there and accidentally found my birth certificate,” he says. “I called my mother at work, and she was pretty much in shock. She came right home, called Tug McGraw, borrowed money, and we drove to Houston to meet him. We had lunch with him before a game.”

Tim didn’t see his father again until he was about 19. “I saw him off and on after that. And we became friends — not like a father and son, but good friends,” McGraw says.

McGraw was salutatorian of his high school class in Rayville, Louisiana. “You had to have good grades then to play ball,” he says. He received several college sports scholarships but decided to take the music scholarship he was offered. “I didn’t do so well in my music theory and reading music classes. I still don’t read music,” McGraw says. “What I really loved was history — still do.”

Still, he was drawn to perform. He began to play solo in regional clubs in 1987 and moved to Nashville like every other hopeful young performer in the country. Within just a few years, his talent and onstage charisma helped him nab a record- ing contract with Curb Records. His 1992 debut album, Tim McGraw, produced a minor hit, “Welcome to the Club.” Little did McGraw know that he was soon to break out of the minors and into major-league Country music stardom.

“Indian Outlaw,” the first single off his second album, Not a Moment Too Soon, initially caused some controversy. Critics claimed that it presented Native Americans in a negative way (although the song became popular among some Indian tribes and went to the top of the playlist at the Clear Channel KTNN, the radio voice of the Navajo Nation). The controversy helped sales, however, and the song made it into the Top 10 on the country music charts and the Top 20 on the pop charts. “That’s where it all started,” McGraw says. “That’s the one that broke everything open for me.” Not a Moment Too Soon became the best-selling Country album of 1994.

Phenomenal success followed. McGraw recorded his Live Like You Were Dying album in 1994. He had found the title song around the time he learned his father was not going to live much longer and recorded it two weeks after his dad died as a celebration of Tug McGraw’s life. The single spent 10 weeks at No. 1. McGraw’s next album, All I Want, debuted at No. 1 on the country charts in 1995, sold more than 2 million copies, and reached the Top 5 on the Billboard 200. Everywhere, recorded in 1997, reached No. 2 on the charts and sold 4 million copies. Its first single, “It’s Your Love,” a duet with Faith Hill, reached No. 1 on the country charts and the Top 10 on the pop charts, becoming the most played single in the history of the Billboard Country charts. A Place in the Sun (1999) topped the pop and country album charts; Tim McGraw Greatest Hits (2000) topped the charts for nine weeks; and Set This Circus Down (2001) produced four No. 1 country hits.

In 2002, McGraw took his tour band to a hideaway up in the Catskill Mountains to record Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors. “It was like we were at camp,” McGraw says. “One of the guys has been with me for 17 years and most of the rest at least 11 years. With all the heart and soul that’s poured into it, I think it’s the best album I’ve ever done. It’s so meaningful; it’s the coolest. I really hope we get to do it again after the first of the year.”

With 33 million albums sold and 26 No.1 singles to his credit, McGraw has cemented his reputation as one of country music’s all-time biggest stars. And recently, he’s added movie star to his résumé.

His first movie role was as a sheriff in the independent film Black Cloud (2004), directed by Rick Schroder. Then came his critically acclaimed portrait of an abusive alcoholic father of a football player in Friday Night Lights, a 2004 release from Universal/Imagine. Next, McGraw stars in Flicka, opening nationally on October 20. Directed by Michael Mayer and produced by Gil Netter, the film is a 20th Century Fox production of the 1940s classic novel by Mary O’Hara, My Friend Flicka, which was subsequently made into a movie and a television series. McGraw plays the role of a strict father who can’t make ends meet and is in conflict with his 17-year-old daughter, played by Alison Lohman. The daughter is headstrong and determined to prove to her dad that she can not only break a wild mustang but also teach him to race.

“We filmed for about eight weeks in Hidden Valley, California,” McGraw says. “And, of course, there was a lot of riding involved. That part wasn’t a stretch for me. My stepdad taught me to ride when I was about 2 or 3 years old, and I’ve been riding all my life. I love horses.”

McGraw describes Flicka as a great family movie. “I’m excited about being involved in a movie for the whole family, one that my children can see,” he says. “It’ll make you laugh and cry. But there are more laughs than tears — more laughs than I thought there would be.”

Laughs and memorable music. McGraw co-wrote a song for the movie with Tom Douglas. “My Little Girl” is a poignant love song to his daughters, who got to visit the Flicka set and watch him shoot his scenes.

“I don’t watch the rushes too much as we’re going along — it makes me nervous,” McGraw says. “But I’m really proud of the way it turned out.”

When not on set or on the road, the McGraw family enjoys spending time at their farm in Leipers Fork, outside of Nashville. “The house itself is very traditional, with many Faith touches,” McGraw says. “We have about 15 horses on the 800-acre spread, and this is where I love to bird hunt every chance I get.” Hank Williams Sr.’s historic house is on the property.

They also enjoy the opportunity to help others. Tim and Faith McGraw launched their newly established Neighbor’s Keeper Foundation by donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the July 5 Soul2Soul II show in New Orleans to hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast region. The foundation is designed to directly provide goods, services, and finances to assist individuals deprived of basic humanitarian services or programs as a result of natural disaster or social status, especially those still suffering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

And each year McGraw hosts a concert and celebrity softball event in Rayville, called Swampstock, which he started in 1995 to provide sports equipment for Little League baseball. It has grown to provide funds for college scholarships as well. “I love to do anything that benefits kids. They’re our legacy, our future,” he says.

When young performers ask McGraw for advice, he tells them to take the music seriously. “I encourage them to be real and to be themselves, to make the kind of music that they want to make,” he says. “If they’re not honest, nobody’s going to believe them, and it’s not going to work. They don’t have to be technically perfect, but they have to keep it honest. Another thing that lives in my head is: Keep your eye on the prize. Don’t get distracted. Stay true to who you are, and keep your eye on the prize.”

As for his own goals, McGraw has talked about becoming a political servant. “I can’t think of a higher calling than to serve your country,” he says. “Maybe 10 years down the road, I might run for governor of Tennessee. In that kind of leadership role, I’d have the opportunity to change things for the better. If I could use whatever celebrity I may have and do some good with it, I think that would be important.”

In the meantime, “I’ve got a lot of music to make yet,” McGraw says. “There again, I just want to keep it real and honest.”

Honesty pays off. McGraw has earned more than 30 major awards, including three Grammys, 11 American Country Music Awards, nine Country Music Association Awards, eight American Music Awards, and three People’s Choice Awards. And his career continues to soar. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful,” he says. Even with all that success and fame have brought, he keeps his priorities straight: “My first priority is my family,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. I am very blessed.”

And his wish for his legacy? “I rarely have time to reflect on it,” McGraw says, “but when I add two and two, I realize I want to contribute in some way; I’m supposed to do something good with my life. I’d like to be remembered as a good husband, a good father, a good friend, a good human being, and as a person who made honest music. My mother, who is my hero, always told me to be a good cowboy. I’m working on it.”

From the September 2006 issue.