Song Review: Tim McGraw, “I Called Mama”

Did it really take Tim freaking McGraw to get us a country song that actually fit the moment?

It’s been said that “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” McGraw knows this arc all too well: He went from being one of the most consistent hitmakers at the turn of the millennium to releasing trend-hopping drivel like “Felt Good On My Lips” and “Truck Yeah” and having his material described as “auditory Xanax.” In the last few years, however, McGraw has attempted to embark on a redemptive arc, using his music to make important statements and push people to become better (things like “Humble and Kind” and his duet with Faith Hill “Speak To A Girl”) While his attempts have been haphazard and not terribly successful up to this point (“Neon Church” and “Thought About You” certainly deserved that Xanax label), his new single “I Called Mama” is not only his best effort on this front since 2004’s “Live Like You Were Dying,” it’s a song that seems to have found its moment in the wake of a global pandemic that has now killed nearly 80,000 Americans. Instead of encouraging us to ignore the world around by drinking ourselves into oblivion, this track leans into the gravity of the moment (even if it’s a bit unintentional) and encourages us to focus on the things that really matter in life, and does so with an earnest, reflective touch that puts it above even Thanos’s “Six Feet Apart” as a song about post-COVID life.

Thankfully, whoever produced this song realized that the best thing they could do is stay the heck out of the way of the writing, and instead brought a restrained acoustic approach to the booth that creates a warm, comforting atmosphere that helps support and enhance the vocals. The song opens with an organ and a banjo (the first non-token five-string I’ve heard in months) backed by a few spacious background synth tones, and leans on an acoustic guitar to help guide the melody across the verses. The choruses bring some conventional electric axes into the mix, but they’re buried deep in the background and are heavily restricted to avoid upsetting the volume balance, and instead a steel guitar is brought in to provide some solid accents and a decent bridge solo. (The drums are real, but much like the electric guitars, they’re de-emphasized and never grab your attention.) The result is a calm and soothing vibe that invites the listener into the track, one that organically builds momentum over time and projects both seriousness and optimism with its brighter tones and businesslike approach. It’s been a while since I’ve heard the sound and subject matter of a track mesh this well, and for all the griping I’ve done on mediocre mixes over the last month, I have to tip my hat here, because this is some nice work.

I haven’t been terribly impressed with McGraw’s vocal work lately, but he brings his experience to bear and really sticks the landing this time. The song gets a huge assist for this: It’s set up perfectly for an older artist, which minimal range, flow, and power demands and a reliance on the artist’s charisma and charm to sell the story. You don’t last as long as McGraw has without being able to own the narrator’s role, and he uses an understated approach to accomplish his task here: Instead of turning on the waterworks and making this a tearjerker, he holds back a bit to convey a sense of shock at the initial loss of his friend, and he keeps his focus on his behavior as if he’s just trying to stay functional in the wake of a tragedy. The result is an interesting one: You don’t really feel McGraw’s sadness, but you feel that he feels the sadness and that he wants to recommit to the things in life that are really important, and that distance allows the song to maintain a positive feel and avoid obscuring the message with emotion. It’s a surprisingly subtle touch that I wasn’t expecting from McGraw, but it’s one that I can appreciate.

The story of a premature death and a priority shuffling in its wake is nothing new in country music (the song that immediately jumps to mind is Billy Dean’s “Only Here For A Little While”), but the way the song is framed is what makes the writing stand out here: Instead of turning the moment into an anthemic call to action like Dean, the writers here focus on the impact on the individual, and take a just-the-facts, one-step-at-a-time approach: The narrator picks up some items at the store, sits down to reflect and play music by a river, and eventually call their mother. The level of detail is high enough during this sequence to place the listener on the river bank and let them listen in to the call (hearing the parent’s smile is probably the highlight), helping us to share in the narrator’s state of mind. The song implores the listener to avoid procrastinating when it comes to people, but it does so without coming across as preachy or dictatorialinstead, it takes a “show, don’t tell” approach by demonstrating the benefits of its suggestion through the narrator’s improved frame of mind. Maybe I’m still recovering from all these nihilistic party songs that are clogging up the genre right now, but it’s nice to hear a song in which things actually matter for a change.

I didn’t expect “I Called Mama” to be any more than a bunch of vague, empty platitudes like much of Tim McGraw’s recent work, but it turned out to be a well-constructed, well-executed treatise on priority recalibration at a time when we’re all stuck at home going through the same process. Even though we’re not all directly affected by the losses around us, we’ve all got a strong sense of the gravity of these times (…okay, judging by the size of the party my neighbor threw this weekend, only most of us have a strong sense), and we’re all trying to answer the same questions: How do we keep moving forward? What should our new “normal” look like? Through tasteful production and a strong vocal performance, McGraw and the writers are advocating for the KISS principle, telling us to take small steps in the right direction and focus on the people that matter to us, all the while projecting a quiet confidence that the narrator, and the audience, will eventually get through this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few long-overdue emails I need to send.

Rating: 9/10. Don’t miss this one, but you know what? Call your parents first.