NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tim McGraw is free.
The country star has moved on from a troubling label, quit drinking and grown up a bit, and all that has given McGraw a new energy he says you can hear on his latest album, "Two Lanes of Freedom."
"I think this record is definitely sort of a flag in the ground for me," McGraw said.
His first release with Big Machine Records has been the talk of Nashville for a year now. Singles have marched up the charts and fans have responded enthusiastically as McGraw debuted music on the road during his stadium tour with Kenny Chesney last year.
For the first time in years, everything is aligned exactly how McGraw wants it. And the 45-year-old singer is fired up like he's playing under Friday night lights.
That energy has translated to the people around him as well.
"I think a real cloud has been lifted," said Coran Capshaw, McGraw's manager since 2009. "He's got a great new partner in Big Machine and can put his music out and be in control of his career. The ability to move forward is here and that's been exciting. And that's where I think that energy comes from."
McGraw's final five years at Curb Records led to some discouraging low-wattage moments in what has otherwise been a mostly perfect two-decade career, and it's still not completely over. While a judge allowed McGraw to move forward with his recording career and sign with Big Machine, the legal fight drags on in court. And Curb continues to sell McGraw records, releasing a duets album just two weeks ago as McGraw was ramping up publicity for the Big Machine release.
The Louisiana native says it was often like that in the final years with Curb — out of sync. McGraw remained a star during this period, stretching into acting and selling more records and tickets than most of his peers. But there's no question it was a stagnant period in which a series of best-of releases mixed in with new music led to confusion and frustration for fans.
It was even worse for McGraw, good friend Brad Warren said. To understand how difficult the period was for McGraw, the songwriter said, you have to understand how competitive the singer is.
"When I hear stories about Michael Jordan and sports, I think of Tim," Warren said. "He is competitive with everything all the time. When he decided he was going to get in shape, he didn't stop when he started to look good in a T-shirt. He's just super competitive. All the really big winners are like that. He's the Michael Jordan of country music."
Imagine if Jordan played in concrete shoes ... that's how McGraw felt till "Two Lanes of Freedom."
"Whether you're planning a tour, you're planning a movie, a record release, single releases, all those sort of things, video releases, if you can't have a symbiotic relationship with all those things, then you're not capitalizing and making the most out of it," McGraw said. "I feel like that's the greatest thing we've got right now — we're all on the same page about how we want our music to be presented."
The release of "Two Lanes of Freedom" also neatly bookmarks a new period of growth for McGraw personally. While struggling professionally, he was also reshaping his life away from the spotlight where he and wife Faith Hill juggle two superstar careers while raising three daughters. He quit drinking and started putting things right.
"I think I just didn't feel comfortable with what I was doing anymore," McGraw said. "I think there came a time when I felt uncomfortable with how much I was drinking. I mean, who knows if it was too much or over the top or whatever. I felt like it was. So I got to the point where I felt like it was too much and I didn't want my kids to be around that. I felt like I needed to be a rock for them in a lot of ways and I thought that was a good place to start."
McGraw says that kind of struggle never ends. But he's learned how to turn those negative forces into a positive energy that envelops his career and his relationships.
"(I'm) growing up a little bit, I guess, is what I'm trying to say more than anything overall," McGraw said with that killer sly grin of his. He recalled a recent conversation with Hill in which he said something somewhat mature. "She looked at me and said, 'Well, I think you've finally hit 16.' So I think that's been good for our marriage. I'll take 16."
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.