His friendship with Kenny Chesney goes back more than 20 years, said Tim McGraw, to the days when “we’d sit in each other’s apartments, barely able to pay the light bill, and dream about what we wanted to do.”
“It was 1991. I’d just graduated from college and moved to Nashville,” Chesney told The Star recently, “and he had a record deal, but no singles yet. It was a very exciting time but very uncertain. We didn’t know if anyone would want to listen to our music.”
More than 20 years later, their lives turned out bigger than their wildest dreams. Sunday night, the two will perform at Arrowhead Stadium, co-headliners in the Brothers Under the Sun Tour. This is Chesney’s ninth year doing stadium tours, a feat he didn’t bother to imagine back when it was tough to get the bills paid, he said.
“Back then I just wanted a song on the radio,” he said. “I wanted to get a bus, tour the country and see the places my heroes had played. We didn’t dream big back then. I know I didn’t. Not this big.”
Life got big for both of them in big ways, and for years their careers thrived separately.
“Tim and I have taken different paths over the years,” Chesney said, “sometimes completely different paths, sometimes parallel paths.”
There are several parallels. Chesney, 44, has since put a few songs on the radio — nearly four dozen since 1995. Twenty-three of those have topped the country charts. Eleven of his 12 albums have gone platinum or gold.
McGraw, 46, has compiled similar numbers: more than four dozen Top 20 songs, including 32 that hit No.1. Nine of his 11 albums have been certified platinum or gold.
Both are still making records and putting hits on the charts, though both say the process and intentions have changed.
On June 19, Chesney will release “Welcome to the Fishbowl,” his 13th studio album and one that continues in a direction he started with its predecessor, “Hemingway’s Whiskey.”
“It’s the most emotionally authentic record I’ve ever made,” he said. “It represents an artistic shift. I went on a lot of different emotional journeys making this record. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any fun on this record, ’cause there is.
“But you get to a point where you hope you grow and get better as a writer and a person and you hope all that flows into your writing. And that’s why I’m so proud of this record. I feel like I’ve done that.”
That shift was evident in his duet with Grace Potter called “You and Tequila,” a Top 5 single from the “Whiskey” album. It’s a wistful love song, warm and acoustic, co-written by Deana Carter and Matraca Berg: “You and tequila make me crazy / Run like poison in my blood / One more night could kill me, baby / One is one too many / One more is never enough.”
“Tequila” is nothing like the many seismic country/rock guitar anthems in Chesney’s arsenal, the kind that can rattle the upper decks of a football stadium. But as he and Potter performed it live in stadiums last summer, he said, the crowd response persuaded him to record more songs like it and bring them out on the stadium trail.
“Why can’t I hit people in the chest with a kick drum and a lot of guitars, but also be more of a poet?” he said. “I’ve never had that mentality. When we started doing these stadium shows I felt like I had to feed that energy with basically every song. I don’t think I can do that any more. I don’t want to. Why can’t I be both?”
So he filled “Fishbowl” with a vibe resembling “Tequila.” The album’s first single was Chesney’s rocking duet with McGraw, “Feel Like a Rock Star.” Its second was the more contemplative “Come Over.”
“There’s ‘Rock Star’ and there’s the rest of the album,” Chesney said.
That doesn’t mean during his concerts he’s abandoning the well-known arena rattlers that have helped make him famous, like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.”
“I’m proud of those songs,” he said. “They’ve helped define my career. They were authentic at the time. But I’m at the point in my career where I don’t want to be just the guy up there with four loud guitars and everyone’s going crazy and raising and swinging their arms. I love that guy, but I also want to go out there and make people think and take them somewhere emotionally.”
In January, McGraw released “Emotional Traffic,” his 11th studio album and one that stirred a conflict with his now former longtime label, Curb Records.
Like its predecessors, “Traffic” was put together under a basic premise, McGraw said: Sing what you feel, not what you think might be popular.
“I’ve always just looked for great songs, songs I relate to,” he told The Star recently. “I write all the time for my albums, but most of the time mine don’t make it because they go in the pile with everything else. And I’m only going to pick the best songs.
“You’ve got to go with a song that makes you feel something, that moves you. You can’t cut music for a specific purpose or because you think that’s what the fans want. That’s a recipe for failure.”
Like many of his albums, “Traffic” is filled with a variety of styles, some that stray far from traditional country, especially his pop-soul duet with Ne-Yo, “Only Human.” One of its better songs, however, has a strong ’70s-country-politan flavor: “Better Than I Used to Be,” a ballad about a guy taking stock of his past but finding some light ahead: “I can finally stand the man in the mirror I see / I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get / But I’m better than I used to be.”
McGraw has been married to country star Faith Hill for 15 years. They have three daughters. Asked about the satisfaction he extracts from his life as a country star for more than 20 years, he said, “I’m going to alter your question a bit. The best thing about my success is the time it allows me to spend with my family, to be in and out of work and be home or go to my kids’ functions and be part of their lives. Success has allowed me to do that.”
But like Chesney, McGraw said he is still growing and evolving, which affects the kinds of songs he feels are suitable for him.
“I’m starting to figure myself out,” he said. “After 20 years and a ton of success and so many great people working for me, it feels like the spring of my career. So much is ahead of me. It’s like I’ve been this big block of stone and I’ve chiseled and chipped away at it and now I’m starting to see the form and I’m really starting to home in on what it really is.”
There are big changes ahead, too. McGraw has left Curb and is now on the roster of Big Machine Records, home of Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts. And in September, he announced he’d made some personnel changes in his longtime band, the Dancehall Doctors.
But this summer, he and Chesney are going back in time, in a way, performing together in football stadiums like they did during the George Strait Country Music Fest in 2000. (At one of those stops, near Buffalo, N.Y., both were arrested after a scuffle with local law enforcement after Chesney rode off on a deputy’s horse.)
Both said the stadium experience has its challenges and advantages, and doing it together makes it even better, like living a dream.
“Bigger is better for me,” McGraw said. “I did the George Strait festivals forever in the early days. I have fun with it. I’ve always been about reaching the person farthest away. I love the energy, the bigness of it. It’s such a great vibe. There’s nothing like it. And I’ll be standing out there with someone I’ve known for 20 years.”
“It took me a little while to figure out how to connect with such a big crowd, but we’ve got it down now,” said Chesney, who came to Arrowhead last July with the Zac Brown Band. “Kansas City has always been great to us. Last year at Arrowhead, I felt like I was in a club, even though it was the hottest day of the year.
“And having (McGraw) there will make it even more special. It’s not like two labels decided two artists were going to record a single together and then said, ‘Oh, hey, let’s do a tour, too.’ It’s authentic. The chemistry is still there, and the fans believe it.”