Five years sober (as he recently revealed), and free from a two-decade relationship with former label Curb Records, country icon Tim McGraw is understandably in a mood to celebrate freedom on a variety of levels. That jubilation comes out clearly in his new release Two Lanes of Freedom, both in its overall atmosphere and in McGraw’s frequent explorations with the boundaries of his genre.
Of course, McGraw has never been one to shy away from the modernization of country music, blending pop and rock elements easily into arena-friendly tunes. But what makes Tim McGraw unique to me is his ability to explore fresh sounds and rhythms while keeping his feet firmly in a solid country vibe. Never is this more exemplified than in Two Lanes; while McGraw flirts with everything from world music rhythms to hip-hop to pop to zydeco, you never lose sight of the fact that you are listening to a country record—and that’s a highly impressive feat to an old-school aficionado like me.
The advance singles have already proven the radio-worthiness of this album, with last summer’s “Truck Yeah” already achieving gold status, and the easy, country-rocking “One Of Those Nights” currently sitting at Number 8 on the Billboard Country Songs chart. “Truck Yeah,” as it turns out, is one of McGraw’s best examples of genre-blending (not genre-bending, mind you), combining elements of arena rock and hip-hop with “hillbilly proud” redneck country in one of the most ear-candy crowd-pleasers to hit the airwaves in quite some time.
Perhaps McGraw’s most apparent genre stretch comes in the bouncy pop of “Mexicoma,” combining a south-of-the-border party vibe that sounds like it might be more at home on a Kenny Chesney record. Even here, though, the zydeco-esque accordian makes it sound so southern that it is forgivable.
While Tim McGraw definitely knows how to ramp up the sound, some of my personal favorite moments on the record are when he grows more reflective. “Book of John” is a touching ballad about a book of memories from a lost relative, while “The Highway Don’t Care” is as much sentimental in context as in its lyric, with new label-mate Taylor Swift (who, you may recall, once wrote a song called “Tim McGraw”) lending guest vocals on the song along with Keith Urban. The whole thing lends a full-circle feel to close out the record.
Overall, Two Lanes of Freedom is an appropriate new release for an obviously healthier, happier Tim McGraw, one who is celebrating new starts and new chapters in his career. While this record’s genre-blendings don’t really signify the breaking of new ground for an artist like McGraw, the hallmark of any great record is a collection of great songs—and Two Lanes has those in spades. On those grounds, I think this record will go down as one of the standouts of an already stellar career.