The debut single from McGraw’s excellent 2002 album Dancehall Doctors drew controversy for its references to premarital sex and abortion, and was even banned at some country radio stations. But the song is more than just a firebrand. Written by indie singer-songwriter Jason White, “Red Ragtop” beautifully chronicles the rise and fall of two young lovers whose relationship crumbles under the pressure of an unwanted pregnancy and their decision not to have the child. The forthright (and non-judgmental) portrayal of such a controversial and difficult topic is rare in a genre that often glosses over life’s dirty bits, and brave coming from a mainstream superstar at the pinnacle of his career.
“Angry All The Time”
A heartbreaking divorce ballad from 2001’s Set This Circus Down, McGraw handles this weighty Bruce Robison-penned gem with one of his most convincing and emotive vocal performances. He masterfully draws out the confluence of emotions at the heart of the song’s marital disillusionment when he sings, “You ain’t the only one who feels like this world’s left you far behind/I don’t know why you’ve gotta be angry all the time,” his voice swelling with a perfect mixture of disappointment and resentment. McGraw may not be country music’s greatest technical singer, but “Angry All The Time” exemplifies his gift for connecting with the emotional underpinning of a complex story.
“If You’re Reading This”
Country music has a long and (mostly) dignified history of war and soldier songs, ranging from Ernest Tubb’s “Soldier’s Last Letter” to Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier.” Still, there’s something special about “If You’re Reading This,” which McGraw (who has only penned a handful of songs in his career) co-wrote with Brad and Brent Warren, and which he debuted in early 2007 – during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The song avoids patriotic bluster, and doesn’t aim to inspire Americans to rally behind the cause. Instead, it simply offers the final goodbye of a fallen warrior, delivered by McGraw with devastating frankness.
“Just To See You Smile”
One of the most instantly recognizable (and bittersweet) country singles of the past two decades, “Just To See You Smile” (written my Mark Nesler and Tony Lane) is also one of McGraw’s best. His voice sounds young and slightly tinny here, and the track has a distinctly over-processed mid-‘90s feel, but that youthfulness plays to his advantage as he sings about an idealistic, selfless devotion that requires a certain degree of naïveté.
“Blank Sheet Of Paper”
This gorgeously arranged and performed album cut from 2007’s Live Like You Were Dying is a true hidden gem. Written by Don Schlitz and the Warren Brothers, it features a colorful (and prominent) pedal steel track and tasteful fiddle fills that beautifully compliment McGraw’s understated vocal. The lyric’s a real winner too, telling the story of a man who knows what he needs to say to his lover to make things right, but just can’t bring himself to write it down. “He just stares at me, and I just stare at him,” he sings, his voice barely more than a whisper. “And now one broken heart later/I am just a blank sheet of paper.”