Tim McGraw’s latest single is a smart choice for reclaiming lost momentum, but as a standalone song it’s merely decent.
Written by Marv Green, Lance Miller and Jimmy Yeary
The pendulum swings both ways with Tim McGraw. He’s an enigma, responsible for some of the smartest mainstream country music of the past decade (“Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” “Humble and Kind”) and some of the worst (“Truck Yeah,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” “Way Down”). With the exception of “Lookin’ For That Girl,” his output for Big Machine Records has been his best in that time period, both critically and commercially. Of course, that’s why it was baffling when he cast aside momentum gained from “Humble and Kind” (also a win for songwriter Lori McKenna) for a milquetoast duets album with Faith Hill in 2017, in addition to switching record labels to release said album.
Give McGraw credit where it’s due, though. He jumped ship long before “Way Down” made any actual momentum this year, and with him back at Big Machine Records … well, his lead singles tend to be his worst material, but it’s hard to outright screw up a song named “I Called Mama,” released before Mother’s Day. If anything, the release is a bit too slick and perfect for reestablishing McGraw’s name.
As a standalone song, “I Called Mama” says the right things and is largely inoffensive; compared to other McGraw songs opting for this same theme, however, it’s merely decent. Like “Live Like You Were Dying,” we begin with someone receiving life-altering news about a friend’s declining health (though, here, it’s assumed this person has already died) and end with a promise to live life to its fullest to honor time’s fragile core. Unlike that song’s anthemic atmosphere, “I Called Mama” operates more on restraint, offering a rich palette of organ, pedal steel, banjo and acoustic guitar to carry the melody, all of which sounds great balanced against the warmer pickups. It also helps that McGraw is an older artist who has the lived-in, gruffer exterior to his voice to sell this kind of material.
Ultimately, though, a song like this is critic-proof. It’s sweet and has already resonated enough to become a smash hit right out of the gate, but there’s details missing in the writing that hold this back for me. The small detail of stopping by the water to just stop and watch the river flow is a nice, calming touch, but the actual hook feels forced, failing to offer much beyond a vague promise to use the time left wisely. Granted, that may be the point, given how the song focuses on its little details to paint a bigger picture. But the song really could have afforded a third verse or stronger bridge instead of just repeating the exact same scenario every time for its chorus. Even offering a direct quote from the mother or framing their relationship as estranged might have added a deeper emotional stake to this, but we don’t get that.
Instead, it’s a feel-good song that McGraw has performed before (and better, at that). It’s calming for a moment and largely likable, but it doesn’t offer much inspiration afterward.