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Country star Tim McGraw travels back in time to '1883' with wife Faith Hill

Tim McGraw has won three Grammy Awards and more than a dozen Academy of Country Music Awards. He plays Civil War veteran James Dutton making his way West in the Paramount+ series <em>1883</em>.
Emerson Miller
Tim McGraw has won three Grammy Awards and more than a dozen Academy of Country Music Awards. He plays Civil War veteran James Dutton making his way West in the Paramount+ series 1883.

Tim McGrawhas been one of the biggest stars in country music for years, but lately it's an acting role that's getting a lot of attention. He's currently starring with his wife, singer Faith Hill, in the Paramount+ Western TV series 1883.

The show tells the story of a group of Eastern European immigrants trying to make their way in covered wagons from Texas to Oregon. It's the first time McGraw and Hill have acted together, and he says they knew it would be a big challenge.

"I remember we were sitting on our patio and I looked at Faith and I told her, 'Once we sign [the contract], we are no longer the boss anymore. We're hired help,' " McGraw says. "'It's going to be really hard work.' And it was: It was 14-hour days, six days a week, and we probably got three hours of sleep a night."

They also spent about three weeks in "cowboy camp," where they learned the basics of pioneer living — some of which McGraw was already familiar with.

"I grew up in Louisiana and my step dad was a cowboy, so I could ride before I could walk," he says. "But the wagon driving was something completely different. I'd never done that before, and Faith had to do that the most."

McGraw says one scene stands out in his memory: "[Faith] was driving that wagon across the river and it was probably 36 degrees out, freezing cold. I was up to ... my waist and on the horse in water. And it was probably 3:30 in the morning and it was our 25th wedding anniversary when we did that scene."

Interview highlights

On acting opposite his real wife, Faith Hill, for the first time

"We'd lay in bed and ... she would read the entire script out loud. And then I would read episode two out loud. But we never sat down and we never rehearsed our lines together. We never rehearsed scenes together because we didn't want to bring so much of Tim and Faith into our characters. We wanted it to remain Margaret and James. "

On finding out, when he was 11, that his biological father was Major League Baseball pitcher Tug McGraw

"It was totally by accident. My step dad and my mom divorced and we had just moved. ... We'd moved in with my grandparents for a little while and we finally moved into a house in rural Louisiana. And I was going through a closet for some reason when I found a box and when I opened the box, my birth certificate was in the box. ... It said my dad's full name and it said his occupation was professional baseball player. And it was pretty much a shock. ... I thought there had been some sort of mistake.

"And oddly enough, I had three baseball cards on my wall. I can't remember the first one, one was César Cedeño and the third one was Tug, [who] I had up on my wall because he was one of my favorite players, believe it or not."

On trying to have a relationship with his birth father, Tug McGraw, and initially being rejected

"[My mom] didn't tell him that she was pregnant. She moved to Louisiana. On the day I was born, my grandmother called and actually ... got him in the Mets dugout just to tell him I was born — and that was it. ... So when I found the birth certificate, I just told mom that I wanted to meet him, as any kid would. And she got in touch with his lawyer, I believe, and ... mom borrowed a car — because she didn't have a car that could make it — and we drove to Houston and he left us a couple of tickets. And we got to go into the game before and watch batting practice. And I remember tossing a ball with him a little bit watching batting practice, and I remember he gave up a grand slam when we came in. ... We had a lunch and he goes, 'We can be friends, but I don't know if I'm your dad or not.' ...

"The next year, I wanted to go back and see him and, of course, mom being a great mom, she arranged to get tickets and we drove to Houston again and she had got me a McGraw shirt with Phillies colors and had the name on the back and his number and everything. So I was wearing that and he was in the bullpen and back then at the Astrodome ... you go right up next to [the bullpen]. ... And I remember going over and walking and standing right in front him and yelling "Hey Tug!" ... and he ignored me the whole time, and that was the last time I saw him [until I was 18]."

On dropping out of college and moving to Nashville to pursue music

"I had a repertoire of about 50 songs. So I started playing for tips at a local restaurant and then I put a band together. And then there was less and less of going to class and more and more going out and playing music at night until it became unsustainable on the class level. And I remember I sold everything I had. I sold my car. I sold my shotguns. Everything that I had, I sold. And I was going to buy a bus ticket to Nashville and have enough money to be in a hotel for a couple weeks if I needed to. Before that, I had to call my mom and let her know that I was dropping out of school, which scared me to death, because I knew she didn't graduate high school because of me. She didn't get the opportunities in life that she wanted because of me, because I was born and she had that responsibility and she was in an abusive relationship, probably because she thought she needed help and needed the support. So for all of these reasons, she wanted me to succeed and I wanted to succeed for her.

"And so I was scared to death to call her and tell her I was going to drop out of college. And when I finally got the nerve to do that, I called her and said, 'Mom, I'm just letting you know that I'm dropping out of college and I'm moving to Nashville to play music.' And there was silence on the line. And of course, I expected, 'Hell, no, you're not!' but what I got back from my mom was, 'Well, I'm surprised you haven't done that already.' And she said, 'You need to go do it, otherwise you'll always wonder if you could have made it.' "

On falling in love with Faith Hill

I knew the first time I saw a picture of her that I was in love.

"I knew instantly. I knew the first time I saw a picture of her that I was in love. It was my first headlining tour, and my management asked her management if she would open the tour and she agreed — and it was called the Spontaneous Combustion Tour, believe it or not. Before our tour started, we did a festival together, which was the first time we'd ever spent any time around each other.

"The Joker by the Steve Miller Band was our encore song, and we used to do this thing where we'd all get at the front of the stage and we'd do a sort of slide guitar kind of thing. And we're doing that and I feel some presence behind me and I turn around and it's Faith and she's doing the slide with us. And I turn around to look at her and I said, 'OK, boy, something's up here.' She was in a relationship. I was just getting out of my relationship. We started our tour and then we went about a little over a month, two months, and I finally just I walked into her dressing one room one day and just kissed her. ... And by the end of the tour, we were married."

On proposing

"I tried to propose a couple of times, but she didn't take me seriously. But I remember when she said yes ... I want to say we were in Montana, but we were at a big outdoor country music festival, and they had set up these trailer houses that were our dressing rooms. And she wasn't playing. She was just there with me, riding along with me. And I had a road case that had a mirror and some clothes hanging in it, and we're standing there and I'm just about to go on stage, in this little trailer house with 50,000 people out there at this festival. And I probably had a beer in my hand, and I stop right before I got to the door and I looked at her and says, 'I am as serious as I could ever be in my life. I want you to marry me and I want us to get married as soon as possible.' And she goes, 'What? You're crazy. I can't believe you're asking me to marry you at a country music festival in a trailer house.' And I just laughed and walked out the door and did my show. And when I walked back into my dressing room on my mirror, she had written in lipstick. 'Yes!!' with big exclamation marks. ... And I still have that mirror too, by the way."

On how Faith Hill has changed him as a musician

"I certainly got better. I mean, I became a better musician, singer, performer, because she's fantastic at all those things. I mean, especially when we have to sing together, when we do tours together. I don't want to get the evil eye from her when I'm off-key trying to do harmonies, so it makes me stay on my toes. ... I've gotten a look every now and then when I haven't been keeping up. But it makes me step up pretty quick. But I'm in awe of watching her on stage every time. I always say that she's like Aretha Franklin, Brigitte Bardot and Janis Joplin all rolled into one when she's on stage and performing the way she sings."

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.