It didn’t come as a huge surprise when Tim McGraw broke from his regular set list on a recent evening at the Rabobank Arena here to sing a couple of old classics by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
The two late legends put this dusty oil town on country music’s map, so pulling out “Act Naturally” and “Mama Tried” — well, that was a surefire way to win over the thousands of Bakersfield fans who’d come to see McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, on what the couple call their Soul2Soul tour.
More unexpected was Hill’s decision to mash up her song “Free,” about defeating self-doubt, with “Freedom,” the black-pride anthem by Beyoncé, who just a year ago sparked outrage among some country fans when she appeared with the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Assn. Awards.
Stomping across the stage as she sang about breaking chains, Hill was making clear that she hadn’t lost her performer’s flair since her last big tour a decade ago.
“If I’m gonna come back out on the road at 50, I’m not coming to play,” she said later with a laugh.
But the Beyoncé song also signaled the unique position held by this long-running power duo, who after years of singing together are finally releasing their first collaborative album, “The Rest of Our Life.”
Slick but straight-talking, worldly yet down-home, McGraw and Hill communicate credibly to a diverse audience that spans different class levels and politics; to some they embody Nashville’s progressive bent, while others think of them as guardians of tradition. The achievement of their balancing act, especially at a moment of widespread cultural distrust, is that they avoid coming off as phony in the eyes of either side.
You got a sense of that in Bakersfield as the couple, who married in 1996, conducted a meet-and-greet session before their concert. Standing together in a curtained-off backstage area, they received insiders and fans willing to pay extra for the intimate experience: dressed-up twentysomethings out to party, two grandmotherly types in baggy McGraw T-shirts, a local radio guy who’d brought along his kid to collect high-fives.
In each case, the singers subtly tweaked their language and demeanor to suit who was before them — a kind of highly practiced celebrity code-switching that somehow never felt like a pose.
Something similar happens on “The Rest of Our Life,” due Friday. Viewed one way, the album is a cozy, inoffensive depiction of an American marriage, with tender ballads and handsome up-tempo numbers preaching the gospel of devotion.
But you can also look at the record as an implicit rebuke to a modern country scene in which women have been largely relegated to supporting roles — as objects of lust or well-meaning admiration in songs by the men who currently occupy 18 of the top 20 spots on Billboard’s country chart.
Here, in contrast, Hill is on equal footing with her husband in songs with room for more than one point of view.
“They’re not speaking for each other — they’re speaking for themselves,” said Natalie Hemby, a Nashville songwriter who’s worked with Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves and who performed as an opening act on several Soul2Soul dates over the summer. (The tour, which wrapped its first leg last month, will pick up again in early 2018.)
Hemby recalled being invited last year to a songwriters’ dinner at the couple’s home, where McGraw laid out his vision for the album.
“He was like, ‘We’re gonna make this record together, but really I’m just excited to hear Faith sing again.’”
One of the biggest country stars of the late 1990s thanks to hits like “This Kiss” and “Breathe,” Hill backed away from music after a 2008 Christmas album in order to focus on raising her and McGraw’s three daughters. McGraw, meanwhile, went full steam ahead, releasing half a dozen studio albums between 2007 and 2015; last year he scored a No. 1 single with “Humble and Kind,” which also won a Grammy Award for best country song. He also pursued an acting career with roles in movies such as “The Blind Side” and “Tomorrowland.”
The couple talked often about reviving Soul2Soul (which they’d previously toured in 2000 and 2006) and about making an album together. But the timing was never quite right, they said a few hours before the Bakersfield gig.
“The girls were going into real school that you couldn’t pull them out of,” Hill explained, curled on a sofa next to her husband in her dressing room. “And I was kind of waiting for a lull in what I was doing,” McGraw added. “Knock on wood, it never came.”
Even so, each singer’s 50th birthday this year “told us this was probably the time to do it,” said McGraw.
For the album, the couple knew they didn’t want to make a straight duets record with neatly defined he-said/she-said verses. Instead, they were after something more nuanced, with “songs that she sings and I’m kind of leaning in the doorway in the background,” as McGraw described it. Or tunes like the soulful, slow-burning lead single, “Speak to a Girl,” in which the two counsel a third party on how to address a woman with respect.
Byron Gallimore, who produced “The Rest of Our Life” (and has worked with McGraw and Hill separately for years), said he went for a ’70s-style sound — live instruments, old microphones, not too much Auto-Tune — to match the album’s lived-in emotional textures.
“You’re trying to get a little of the realism that was in records before computers got ahold of them,” he said.
McGraw and Hill regard that realism as a crucial aspect of what they do; it’s what keeps them relatable to their fans, they said, even as they’ve both dabbled in Hollywood and gotten behind certain causes not necessarily embraced by country music’s conservative core.
Twenty-four hours after we met, 58 people died in the Oct. 1 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, which led the couple to express their support for “common sense” gun control in a subsequent interview with Billboard — hardly a Beyoncé-level statement, but an uncommon stance in Nashville.
Asked in Bakersfield whether they ever worried about looking like third-coastal elites, Hill shook her head.
“We don’t live the same way that we did, Tim in Louisiana, me in Mississippi,” she acknowledged, referring to their working-class backgrounds. “But we still have the same morals. You treat people with respect and equality, and you never forget where you came from.”
“We have a family life when we’re not working: football games, parent-teacher meetings,” McGraw added. “We’re normal people — Mr. and Mrs. McGraw.”
Hill laughed, aware of how the words might come across.