Call it Irish grit. “If you grew up where I grew up,” McGraw recalls, “you were automatically hyphenated either Irish, Polish, or Italian, and your dad worked in the mill, that was a given.” Hailing from a small steel industry town about 50 miles outside of Buffalo, New York, McGraw was raised on Hee-Haw (“We loved Conway Twitty, or at least his haircut”) and rough games of hockey and football. Small for his age and showing little athletic promise, he gravitated towards music, and good thing: “If I’d have stuck with the sports I liked any longer I might have ended up getting my head taken off. We never wore pads, let alone helmets.” Instead, McGraw grew out his hair, picked up a cheap Japanese guitar, and at 13 started a rock band with friends, playing in bars a couple of nights a week—with a note from his mother in hand, in case the cops asked any questions.
As soon as he finished high school, McGraw hightailed it to Los Angeles with rock star dreams and a country sensibility. Wearing out records by Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, and “digging through stacks of junk at the Pasadena flea market looking for old Buck Owens and Johnny Cash on vinyl,” he developed his own unique hard-core hillbilly sound.
It’s a crazy life, and McGraw looks upon it with bemused satisfaction in “My So Called Life,” reflecting, “Some days I own this town, other days it shoots me down/Always I’m still hanging round, holdin’ on to hope.” Expertly depicting the driving pace of his “Honky Tonk Life,” McGraw stubbornly continues to hope: “I could quit all this road stuff, go back to my real job, put in a straight 9 to 5/But I love the neon, I love the people, and I love the Honky Tonk Life.”
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