Look Out for the Turbo-Tonker

Country singer Tim McGraw had been playing Little League baseball since he was 5 or 6, but when he was 11 he fielded a tough one--discovering that the man who raised him and was married to his mother wasn't his real father.

Tim, it turned out, was the product of a brief relationship between his mother and baseball star Tug McGraw, who met when he was with the New York Mets' farm team in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.

But the youngster handled it with ease.

"I guess it might have been a little confusing," says McGraw, who grew up in the tiny farm community of Start in northern Louisiana. "But man, when you're 10 or 11 years old or whatever, I mean I was way too worried about meeting girls and playing baseball to let that have any major influence on my life. . . . Probably everybody else thought it was more of a trauma to me than it actually was."

Father and son met briefly at that point, but it wasn't until Tim's college years that they began to establish a relationship. Now Tim enjoys snapping off one-liners at the expense of his father, who in his 20-year career with the Mets and the Phillies established himself as one of baseball's premier relief pitchers and a rambunctious, colorful character.

"He's a nut," says his son, "and fortunately I didn't inherit any of that--well, you might get conflicting reports, but I'll say I didn't.

"A lot of our mannerisms and stuff are alike. We think different because we grew up in different areas, but we also think alike on some things. I'm a big believer in genetics. It's amazing sometimes how much we're alike. It scares the hell out of me.

"We have a great relationship. He likes to tell everybody I'm his older brother. What's scary is sometimes it works."

These days, Tim is quickly closing on his father's level of celebrity. His second album, "Not a Moment Too Soon"--sparked by the novelty-tinged hit single "Indian Outlaw"--not only tops the country charts but is No. 3 among all albums after two weeks at No. 1.

Country's latest crossover star was a latecomer to music, waiting until he was a student at Northeast Louisiana University to act on his long-held desire to learn guitar. His first semester's grades had dashed his hopes of becoming a lawyer and he didn't have the commitment to make a go of athletics, his other chief interest.

But when he started playing guitar, things clicked.

"They say when you find your passion you know it, and I knew it," says McGraw, 27. "And ever since I made up my mind to do this I've never second-guessed it and thought I should do something else."

McGraw started playing solo for tips in local clubs and worked in bands in Louisiana and Jacksonville. He made the move to Nashville in 1989 and eventually signed with Curb Records, which released his first album, "Tim McGraw" in 1993. "Not a Moment Too Soon" came out last March.

The McGraw camp has dubbed as "turbo-tonk" his rock-inflected honky-tonk sound that's influenced by such heroes as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

McGraw's commercial rise has been accompanied by a mini-controversy surrounding "Indian Outlaw," which some Native American activists attacked for what they considered offensive racial stereotyping.

"I'm a Native American advocate and always have been," says McGraw. "So it hurts my feelings that somebody would take it in that way. But at the same time you understand that interpretation is interpretation and you can't please everybody."

McGraw's even response to the uproar indicates that he's ready to deal with the pressures that come with prominence.

"It's like sports or anything," he says. "I mean, I've had this in my head for a long time. I've relived this stuff since the time I was 15 years old and first even thought about singing. So I think that helps you prepare for it. It's kind of like picturing yourself jumping off that wall and making that catch."

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