The last album in the long, lucrative but contentious relationship between McGraw and Curb Records arrives more than a year late with a fascinating backstory and a little bit of buzz. McGraw isn't actively promoting the album, but it kicks off what promises to be a high visibility year for the country star.
He's currently considering his next move after a judge granted his freedom from his record deal last November. What's already on the schedule is the "Brothers of the Sun" stadium tour this summer with Kenny Chesney and actively recording new songs.
"Emotional Traffic" already indirectly produced a multi-week No. 1 song, "Felt Good on My Lips," which was released against McGraw's wishes on a hits package in 2010. McGraw has called the new album his "best ever" and fan interest is piqued.
"There are a lot of possibilities with this record. It's hard to say," said Wade Jessen, who tracks country music and other charts for Billboard Magazine in Nashville. "I think at least in the public comments Tim has made about it, he's very much a cheerleader for this music, and that may go a long way to making the most emotionally invested fans overlook the fact that it's coming out on a record label Tim has had some issues with. And we know how loyal country music fans are. They like for their artists to be treated fairly and with respect, and if there's any perception otherwise it can guide their decisions."
With legal issues to resolve still, McGraw and Curb executives aren't doing interviews to promote "Emotional Traffic." But McGraw laid the groundwork for a promotional campaign in a few interviews last year. He also previewed a handful of cuts from the album on last year's extremely popular "Emotional Traffic" tour.
In an interview last April, McGraw said he couldn't wait for fans to hear the new album. After recording four or five LPs with his road band, The Dancehall Doctors, McGraw decided to use a different set of musicians on "Emotional Traffic" and looked to open up his sound. He brought in Ne-Yo for a duet as well.
"There are some great players," McGraw said. "A couple of guys from Paul McCartney's band are on this album. Paul Bushnell is on bass, who's one of my favorite bass players ever. The songs are just really fresh and cool. I'm excited."
McGraw's longtime producer Byron Gallimore agrees with McGraw's assessment of the album. He says over the two decades they've worked together, they've used a formula for choosing songs. "Emotional Traffic" continues that trend of not only including country material, but expanding into areas like R&B, pop and rock. McGraw can then use his voice to pull the song back into country territory.
"We're certainly happy with it and feel like it's one of our best," Gallimore said. "I think every time you do another one you feel like it's probably better than the last one, for me personally at least. We've got a great batch of songs on here and I'm just excited that it's getting out there. ... I feel very strongly about this record. I would agree with Tim on that."
Without McGraw's direct help, Curb has had to get creative with its promotion. It's liberally using McGraw's "best ever" quote, for one, enlisting the artist's help at least passively. The label also partnered with NPR's "First Listen" series to stream the album for a week leading up to release. While this practice isn't unusual in the indie rock world, it's a step in a different direction for mainstream country.
There's also a new single "Better Than I Used to Be" moving up the charts, the traditional way to get a fan's attention.
Jessen isn't sure all this will translate into a blockbuster sales week for McGraw, but he suspects McGraw's faithful will be ready to spend some money.
"I think this is a good day for Tim McGraw fans because they've got new music in their hands," Jessen said. "That's the upside of this entire scenario. That's the bottom line."