Our first taste of Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album came when he sang “Things Change” at the CMA Awards in 2000. A poignant tale, the song dealt with changing attitudes over time within the music industry. While it wasn’t an official single, the song ended up charting via unsolicited airplay peaking at #31.
“Things Change” resonated with fans and spoke candidly about the growing frustration between traditional country and pop country:
Now some say it’s too country
Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll
But it’s just good music
If you can feel it in your soul
And it doesn’t really matter
It’s always been the same
Life goes on, Things Change
I always thought McGraw was singing that verse about the controversy surrounding his wife Faith Hill’s more pop-heavy Breathe album. There was a growing dissatisfaction with her attempts to reach a wider audience and many who felt she was leaving country music. Nonetheless I love the song and the pop/rock heavy production for being a little slice of commentary without coming off too bitter or preachy.
The first official single, “Grown Men Don’t Cry” was released in March 2001 and topped the chart in June. A moody piano ballad, it stuck me the first time I heard it as it marked a distinct departure for McGraw – his first real foray into pop ballad territory. It took a while for me to warm up to since I wasn’t used to this kind of song from him, but Tom Douglas and Steve Seskin pinned one of the finest singles of McGraw’s career. I also thought the twist in the title (grown men really do cry) was very clever.
A cover of Bruce Robinson’s “Angry All The Time,” a song he originally recorded with his wife Kelly Willis on his Wrapped album in 1998, followed. This tale of a crumbling marriage marked another step in McGraw’s evolution as an artist and the background vocals from Hill only add more nuance to the track. The song works on every level – Robinson has crafted a brilliant lyric that allows listeners to feel the pain of a strained union and Bryon Gallimore brought it over the top with the tasteful acoustic production. Another number one, it topped the charts in November 2001.
Third single, “The Cowboy In Me” would continue McGraw’s hot streak on the charts, hitting number one in March 2002. The song opened the album with soft acoustic guitar riffs over steel guitar and fiddle before morphing into a rock ballad on the chorus. The change in production did cause McGraw to shout on the chorus, but it was the opening verses that resonated with me most clearly. I’ve always felt like Al Anderson, Craig Wiseman, and Jeffery Steele were writing my story:
I don’t know why I act the way I do
Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose
Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy
I guess that’s just the cowboy in me
I got a life that most would love to have
But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad
At where this road I’m heading down might lead
I guess that’s just the cowboy in me
McGraw would see the top of the charts again when fourth and final single “Unbroken” hit number one in September 2002. Easily the most forgotten single from this album, it paled in comparison both lyrically and sonically to the ones that proceeded it. But that wasn’t for lack of trying, as “Unbroken” was perfect radio fodder and catchy enough to stick in your head, at least during its chart run.
Set This Circus Down is widely considered the strongest album of McGraw’s career and it’s easy to see why. In a rare feat, all of the singles topped the charts. But what sets it apart from his previous work is the stellar album cuts. Continuing the trend from A Place In The Sun, he left out disposable filler and found some truly stellar songs.
The rock heavy “Angel Boy,” written by Danny Orton, was given the music video treatment although it wasn’t a single. A story about a man who had dealings with the devil, it was always a favorite track of mine, despite the heavy production and somewhat muddy vocal. It was something cool and different and stuck out to me because of that.
My other favorite songs are the Spanish influenced “Let Me Love You,” which McGraw sang with Hill during the Soul 2 Soul tour in 2000, and the journeyman’s anthem “Telluride.” Both are lyrically strong and could’ve easily been radio singles. The latter was indeed a single, for Josh Gracin, and peaked at #34 in 2008. Another highlight is the steel guitar heavy “When You Get Used To Somebody” which shows off a more traditional country sounding McGraw and the title track, a fiddle-laced country rocker.
Overall, Set This Circus Down is another highpoint from McGraw and my second favorite album of his career. It was nice to see, in 2001, he was finally making albums and not just singles. This is another strong set and if you don’t have it, it’s easily found on Amazon and iTunes.