Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Tim McGraw will just have to live with it. The country singer, rushing to make a wedding rehearsal in Nashville, has agreed to attend good friend Tammy Rose, who, departing from custom, has chosen a stellar group of male bridesmaids McGraw, Garth Brooks (whose fan magazine Rose edits), and Tracy Lawrence to accompany her down the aisle. When someone asks if this means donning bonnets and dresses, McGraw chuckles. ''No,'' he says, ''it doesn't go quite that far.''
At 28, the country sensation from northeastern Louisiana has had a lot of practice bucking tradition. A grassroots superstar, he's the Nashville equivalent of rock groups like Offspring or Hootie & the Blowfish a multiplatinum artist without the wraparound grooming, marketing, and spin that routinely accompany major-label careers.
He's also bucked expectations with the release of All I Want, an album that, with retail orders of 1.8 million, is on its way to repeating the quadruple-platinum success of his second album, 1994's Not a Moment Too Soon. Pegged as a novelty act after the controversial success of Too Soon's first single, ''Indian Outlaw'' (which provoked enough Native American and industry backlash to get it yanked from influential radio stations), he has rebounded from next Billy Ray Cyrus status to fully realized talent with the critically praised All I Want.
''After 'Indian Outlaw,' I wasn't taken as seriously as I wanted to be,'' McGraw admits, speeding toward the rehearsal in his GMC truck. ''It never feels good when somebody writes off what you do as a whim or a fad. The reaction challenged me to prove that I was serious about being an artist.''
Ironically, ''Indian Outlaw'' had been road tested before it was recorded, making the storm of negativity a surprise to McGraw. ''Tim closed every live show with it for four years,'' says Mark Hurt, McGraw's manager. ''It always set the crowd aflame. They'd stomp on chairs and throw babies in the air.''
For McGraw, the show is the thing. His muscular sound, driven by a rangy tenor, has the rock-rooted energy of his hero Garth Brooks, but his delivery and choice of songs avoid the sanctimony of much of the new country. ''Garth said it best. When you go to a concert, you want to see a show, not hear a CD,'' asserts McGraw, who stresses the visual with three video screens and state-of-the-art light effects. ''The vibe is feelgood I think Sawyer Brown and Hootie have the same attitude. They're happy.''
Rod Essig, McGraw's CAA agent, describes his client as someone with ''no fears, and no preconceived ideas. He's not following traditional rules. But you know what? Garth didn't either.'' Case in point: McGraw's large core of teenage fans. Instead of eyeing them warily the norm in Nashville, where youth is traditionally considered fickle the singer has courted them. '''Indian Outlaw' brought in the kids, and Tim is definitely scoping that 14-to-30-year-old audience,'' says Essig. ''He keeps ticket prices down, which rock does all the time but country never has. We even did some video shows in parking lots, charging $5 so [anyone underage] could watch from outside when he played clubs. Unheard of.''