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Country’s Quiet Success

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tim McGraw is country music’s secret superstar--at least for now.

Since his 1994 debut single, “Indian Outlaw,” the 30-year-old native of Delhi, La., has sold more albums than anyone in country music except Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and young LeAnn Rimes--an estimated $125 million worth.

Yet McGraw, who is married to country star Faith Hill, doesn’t get nearly the media attention of his peers.

“It’s probably due to my personality,” says the trim, soft-spoken singer during a recent interview in his manager’s Nashville office. “I don’t go out there searching for reasons to be in the press. And that’s fine. Long as I can keep doing what I’m doing, I’m happy. I’ll take the check over the attention any time.”

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Stacks of press clippings and TV guest appearances aren’t the only things you don’t find associated with McGraw. Despite the enormous sales, he has constantly been shut out in the major country music award shows.

On this topic too McGraw is typically understated. He shrugs when asked about the domination that male peers Brooks, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and George Strait have exercised on the competitions.

“If you look at who wins awards, who would you take one away from to give to me?” he asks good-naturedly. “When someone does win, I can’t really say they didn’t deserve it. But, sure, I’d like to win some of them.”

He may get his chance--and pick up a lot of media exposure--tonight at the 33rd annual Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony, which will be at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City.

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McGraw goes into the affair, which will be broadcast by CBS, with more nominations than anyone--seven, including entertainer of the year. In that category, he’s up against Brooks, the duo of Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire and Strait.

The singer’s other nominations include male vocalist, single of the year (“It’s Your Love,” a duet with wife Hill), album of the year (“Everywhere”) and vocal event (the “It’s Your Love” single).

McGraw smiles when he’s asked what he’ll do if he finally wins a major award.

“We’ll go out and have a great party,” he says. “Then, we’ll come down to earth and go back to work.”

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For him, “work” means selling albums.

“There’s not really a recipe to selling albums,” he says. “But nobody’s going to buy a record if they don’t believe that you believe what you’re singing.”

McGraw readily admits he doesn’t own a particularly potent voice.

“I’m no Vince Gill,” he says. Nor does he have the sublime sense of rhythm and phrasing that makes Strait and Jackson so effective. He has a sort of Everyman earthiness that appeals to people.

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“I just try to keep it honest,” he says. “Rather than try to put a curlicue or a lick wherever I can, I just try to sing it straight and show that I mean it.”

At a time when fan loyalty seems in increasingly short supply throughout the pop music world, McGraw is showing remarkable sales consistency.

Though his two subsequent collections haven’t matched the 5 million sales of McGraw’s 1994 debut, “Not a Moment Too Soon,” both of them--1995’s “All I Want” and 1997’s “Everywhere"--have topped the 2-million mark.

Producer Byron Gallimore, who has worked with McGraw on his albums, says that success hasn’t changed the singer. “He was down-to-earth then . . . and he’s down-to-earth now.”

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And if McGraw is reluctant to talk about his success, his manager, Scott Simon, helps put it in perspective.

“Sometimes people don’t realize that Tim has been in the industry a very short time,” Simon says in a separate interview. “He’s five years behind the class of male country superstars [that includes Brooks, Gill and Jackson], but we’re right with them now in terms of album sales and concert tickets.”

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When it comes to publicity, McGraw has certainly had the opportunities to keep his name in the fan magazines. “Indian Outlaw,” the single that kicked off his career, drew the ire of Native American groups who protested its trading on old stereotypes.

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He also drew the attention of editors because his relationship with his famous father, star baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, turned out to be more estranged than storybook. And then there’s the story of his dating country star Faith Hill. The couple, who married in 1996, have a 1-year-old child, Gracie, with another due in August.

Through all of this, McGraw avoided talking about these subjects, and the low-publicity profile extends to his marriage. The couple try to keep their careers separate rather than cash in on the “king and queen of country music” posturing that could maximize box-office receipts.

Though they both will appear Saturday at the George Strait Country Music Festival at Edison International Field in Anaheim, McGraw and Hill normally tour separately. They also refuse to do interviews together.

“I’m just not very comfortable with that kind of stuff,” he says of the media limelight. “The easiest thing in the world for me is to just be a regular guy. The hardest thing is when everyone expects me to be something other than that.”

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