In the Spotlight: McGraw, seen here performing at Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel as part of his limited-engagement “Soul2Soul” concert series with his wife, singer Faith Hill, still commands attention after 20 years in the industry
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Tim McGraw has a career any musician would envy. But in his eyes, he’s still got a long way to go.

When Tim McGraw looks in the mirror, the reflection he sees is vastly different from what the world perceives when it watches one of music’s biggest stars in action.

Indeed, when most think of a male country singer, McGraw is the first one who comes to mind. As he enters a Nashville photographer’s studio for a full day of promotional activities for his latest No. 1 album, it’s easy to see why. The 6-foot, black-hat-wearing singer exudes charisma with his quiet masculinity and cover-worthy good looks. His jeans are tight, and the tattoo peeking out under his blue shirtsleeve hints at his bad-but-not-too-bad-boy persona.

More than 20 years into his career, McGraw, 46, remains one of country music’s most successful artists, with 40 million albums sold and three Grammys, 15 Academy of Country Music Awards and 12 Country Music Association Awards to his credit. He was named the Most Played Artist of the Decade by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems for having his songs broadcast nearly 8 million times on the radio from 2000 to 2009, more than any other artist in any genre. His accomplishments in music enabled him to branch into acting, a pursuit many were surprised to find McGraw took quite naturally to, in films like The Blind Side, Country Strong and Friday Night Lights. With annual earnings topping $18 million, he ranks No. 7 on Billboard’s list of Music’s Top 40 ­Money Makers of 2013, ahead of Justin Bieber, ­Coldplay and Adele.

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That hot streak continues with the recent release of his new album, Two Lanes of Freedom, which became his 14th album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and the single “One of Those Nights,” which is his 33rd No. 1 hit. His musician friends gathered in Las Vegas in April to honor him during ACM Presents: Tim ­McGraw’s Superstar Summer Night, which aired last month.

Despite these impressive achievements, not to mention being half of an A-list power couple with wife Faith Hill, he doesn’t think he’s particularly cool and quickly points out that his three daughters — Gracie, 16; ­Maggie, 14; and Audrey, 11 — would readily agree. In fact, he insists, he’s much more Everyman than Superman.

“I do the same thing with other artists and people I admire,” he says. “I think they never have to worry — that they are the coolest person that ever was all the time because I think they’re the coolest person that ever was all the time. I’m sure people have that sort of philosophy and think that way [about me], but I certainly don’t.”

McGraw may be confident enough to cop to his uncoolness now, but he admits that he wasn’t as comfortable in his own skin early in his career. When he would go into the recording studio, he’d try to emulate other artists in an attempt to replicate their success. Luckily for the fans who love him exactly as he is, it didn’t stick. “Over time I realized: Hey, I sound how I sound and I do what I do,” he says. “I live the way I live and there’s not a lot I can do about it, and I am happy with it.”

The Couple that Plays Together: Since 2000, McGraw and his wife of 16 years, Faith Hill, have co-headlined three “Soul2Soul” concert series.
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Well, almost. There was one increasingly dangerous aspect of his life with which he grew dissatisfied — one he vowed to change and today has no qualms about addressing publicly. In the past, he would drink before going onstage to help him overcome shyness and self-doubt, then use alcohol to fuel the post-show parties that followed. But he quit drinking five years ago, after it began harming his relationships and worrying his friends and family. “I wanted to be the best person I can be, to live to see my kids and grandkids,” he explains. “The path I was going down, I wasn’t taking care of myself, wasn’t taking care of my body. I wanted to keep doing what I did for a living, and it takes a lot of stamina to be able to go out and play 50 shows night after night and do them the way I wanted to do them.”

And the way he wants to do them is at full throttle. Make no mistake: Despite his veteran status, McGraw hasn’t let off the gas any; he’s as hardworking now as he was when he moved to Nashville 24 years ago at the age of 21. “It isn’t a competition or anything, but I think everybody looks to other artists and thinks, ‘That was really good. I really like that. Now I’ve got to step it up a notch,’ ” he says. “I heard Blake Shelton’s album yesterday, and it was like, ‘Wow, that’s good!’ ”

His admirable drive and fierce competitiveness developed during an often-difficult childhood in north Louisiana. He was conceived during a summer romance between his mother and baseball pitcher Tug ­McGraw, but his mother raised him to believe that his stepfather, a long-distance trucker who was an abusive alcoholic, was his dad. He didn’t learn of his father’s true identity until he accidentally discovered his birth certificate when he was 11, and he didn’t establish a real relationship with the elder McGraw (who passed away in 2004) until Tim turned 18. As a boy, he was aware that he was missing the happy home life that many of his friends enjoyed.

He dreamed of becoming a professional athlete like his father until a knee injury made that impossible, so he bought a guitar and began performing locally, eventually dropping out of college and moving to Music City in 1989. Two years later, his father passed a demo tape to a Curb Records executive. That quickly led to a record deal. Although Tim earned his first No. 1 album three years later, and his career has been on nothing but an upward trajectory since, he still sees himself as a dark horse. “I like feeling like I’m the underdog — like I have something to prove,” he says.