Nearly a decade into his recording career, Tim McGraw broke with the usual Music City practice of using studio musicians for his eighth album. Instead, he opted to get of town and took his road band to a studio in upstate New York where Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors was created. On the relatively rare occasions when country artists do use their road bands in the studio, it usually results in a reasonable replication of how the artist and musicians sound in concert. In this case, however, the production on most tracks is very layered and wall-of-sound-like, making it difficult to assess the actual contributions of the Dancehall Doctors. There’s nothing really distinctive about their sound or style of playing, so I’m not really sure what the purpose of using them was, except as a marketing tool or perhaps a vanity indulgence on Tim’s part.
Tim and co–producers Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith use the album as an occasion to branch out a bit stylistically, opting for a more soft-rock or AC rather than country sound for the most part, a move that I suspect was prompted by the tremendous success his wife Faith Hill was having on the pop charts at the time. While he deserves credit for his willingness to try something different, the experiment largely falls flat and serves to highlight his shortcomings as a vocalist, rather than present him as a versatile artist. To be fair, this isn’t a 100% pop album, as Tim does make a number of concessions to his country fans.
The first single to be sent to radio was one of the more country-sounding numbers, “Red Rag Top”, a song that I have never been able to enjoy partially because because I find the subject matter to be repugnant, but mostly because of the dismissive attitude of the narrator in the aftermath of the termination of his girlfriend’s unwanted pregnancy. It was a gutsy move to release a song about abortion to conservative country radio. I don’t recall much of a backlash at the time, but enough stations refused to play it that it broke McGraw’s string of consecutive #1 hits. Still, it peaked at a very respectable #5.
Next up was the highly-glossed “She’s My Kind of Rain”, a song that fails on a number of levels. The heavy-handed production and Tim’s vocal performance which sounds strained from trying to sing at the top of his register make it a less than enjoyable listening experience, but primarily the song does not work because the lyrics don’t make any sense. The metaphors likening his lover to rain, love in a drunken sky, confetti, and black water in a jar are bizarre and nonsensical. Country radio, however, apparently did not care, as the song soared to #2.
In between “Red Rag Top” and “She’s My Kind of Rain”, was an ill-advised cover of “Tiny Dancer”, which was only released to AC radio stations. However, it did receive enough unsolicited airplay from country radio to reach #49 on the country charts. It fared better in the AC world, peaking at #13 on the AC charts. It pales in comparison to Elton John’s original version. Tim’s voice sounds as though it is being stretched to its limits as he tries to hit the high notes on the chorus. Tim finally starts sounding like his old self with the next single, “Real Good Man”, which despite being obviously marketed to his female fans, is one of the tracks that I like best. It reached #1, as did “Watch The Wind Blow By”, a song so dull and unmemorable, I had forgotten it had even been a single until I started my research for this review.
There are ten other tracks in addition to the five singles, mostly more pop/soft-rock dreck like “Illegal”, “Comfort Me”, “Tickin’Away”, and “Sleep Tonight”, but there also a handful of pleasant surprises. “I Know How To Love You Well” written by Arne “Honda” Hovda and Kristian Ottestad, is the type of song that Tim does very well. Obviously recorded with Faith in mind, it seems like it would have been a surefire #1 hit. It’s puzzling that it wasn’t released as a single. Not quite as good but still enjoyable are “Home”, written by Craig Wiseman and Tony Mullins and “Who Are They?” which takes a jab at the nameless, faceless experts that tell us all what to eat, drink, wear and think.
Overall, Tim McGraw & The Dancehall Doctors is decidedly a mixed bag, with a handful of songs that work well, and a larger number of songs that do not. If the strategy was to establish Tim as the next big crossover star, it did not succeed. It earned triple platinum certification, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but that was about the same sales level that he enjoyed on most of his previous albums. And although he did make some inroads in the AC market with “Tiny Dancer”, none of the album’s singles performed any better on the Billboard Hot 100 than his previous efforts. It is easy to find, but probably not worth the effort, except for diehard fans.