NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The din of guitars and drums echo from a sound check while stagehands mill around and a helicopter whips the tree tops.
"I guarantee that's Big & Rich," says country singer Tim McGraw (search), turning to see his opening act buzzing the amphitheater in a helicopter. "Usually, it's a limo every day. Now they're in helicopters. Lord, if they go double-platinum there's no telling what they'll do."
McGraw, 37, seems to enjoy the backstage commotion. He yells to friends, stops for interviews, poses for pictures and smiles a lot.
Tim McGraw is delighted to be, well, Tim McGraw. Ten years after his breakthrough, he remains a consistent hitmaker in an inconsistent, fickle business.
He has the biggest hit of his career this summer with "Live Like You Were Dying," (search) which has spent eight weeks at No. 1.
There's also a 63-city tour, a role opposite Billy Bob Thornton in the upcoming movie "Friday Night Lights," and a high-profile marriage to fellow superstar Faith Hill (search).
"Five years ago, if you'd told me it would have gotten bigger, I wouldn't have believed you," he says.
This latest song, about living life to its fullest, is special for McGraw, who lost his father, former Mets and Phillies relief pitcher Tug McGraw, to cancer in January. (He would have turned 60 Monday.)
The lyrics tell of a man in his early 40s who learned he doesn't have long to live and is asked how he handled the news:
"I went skydiving / I went Rocky Mountain climbing / I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Foo Man Chu," McGraw sings in the chorus. "Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying."
"My dad was sick when I heard the song, and that definitely had a big influence on me," McGraw says. "I knew instantly it was going to be my first single."
"Live Like You Were Dying" is also the title track of McGraw's new album, released Tuesday. While he prefers to keep private his final conversations with his father, McGraw says none contained advice as specific as in the song.
"The bottom line is that it's uplifting," he says. "It's more an affirmation of life than it is about death."
Since becoming a star with the novelty hit "Indian Outlaw" in 1994, McGraw and producer Byron Gallimore have recorded 23 No. 1s, including "Where the Green Grass Grows," "Angry All the Time" and "Real Good Man." All told, he's sold 30 million records.
At its best, McGraw's music incorporates elements of pop, rock and R&B. And while he's certainly a good singer, he's not a great one. Many say his real talent is his ability to hear a hit, much like one of his musical heroes, George Strait.
"It's a combination of two things," said Tonya Campos, music director at Los Angeles country station KZLA. "The guy is loaded with sex appeal, and he knows how to pick a song. I compared him once to Paul Newman. If you watch Paul Newman act, he makes it looks effortless, like there's not even a script. If you listen to Tim sing, that's how it sounds — effortless."
Born in Delhi, La., he grew up as Tim Smith. But at age 12, he learned that his father was baseball pitcher McGraw, who had had a brief affair with his mother.
His mom and stepdad divorced when he was in the fourth grade, leaving her to raise him and his two sisters.
"She worked two or three jobs at a time," he recalled. "I can remember being 11, 12, 13 years old and getting up at 12 o'clock at night and my mom sitting at the kitchen table with the bills spread out everywhere and not even knowing I was there with her head down crying. And then the next day the VCR being gone. It's stuff you grow up with, but you learn a lot from that."
He went to Northeastern Louisiana University on a baseball scholarship and started singing and playing guitar. He dropped out in 1989 and moved to Nashville.
His break was meeting Gallimore, who attended a showcase that netted McGraw a recording contract with Curb. His second album, "Not a Moment Too Soon," yielded four hits including "Indian Outlaw" and "Don't Take the Girl."
McGraw and Hill were married in 1996; they have three daughters. Balancing two busy careers and a family isn't as tough as it looks, he says.
"My kids and my family are my No. 1 priority," McGraw says. "There's not even a close second. So we make sure everything is right with that and then work down from there."
But he pauses a few moments and, perhaps reflecting on his own childhood, he says, "It's easy for me to sit back and say you've got to put your family first. I'm at a time and in a position in my life when I can say that. I understand that there are guys all over the country, all over the world, who bust their ass and lay in bed at night wishing they can say that. So it's kind of condescending for me to say it."
Then McGraw, in T-shirt and jeans with a bandanna over his head, excuses himself to go dress for his show. He returns later in a navy blue pinstripe vest — sans shirt — and a black cowboy hat, sits for yet another interview, performs at a pre-concert party, then takes the main stage for two hours.
He says he tries to follow a bit of career advice he'd once gotten from the late singer Johnny Paycheck.
"He told me, 'Son, always go hard and fast enough so that when you hit the ditch you can pull out the other side.'"