Tim McGraw and his longtime friend Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, wrote a new book, Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation, that explores the history of the United States through song.
It all started with a late-night conversation and cigars in Meacham’s den, McGraw tells PEOPLE in a joint interview.
“Reading Jon’s last book, Soul of America, I got to thinking about how music really marks times in people’s lives, and not necessarily inflection points or seminal moments in people’s lives, but mundane, everyday moments a song can put you back into,” explains the “Humble and Kind” singer, who will perform some of the featured songs during the 7-city book tour. “And I got to thinking, if music can do that on an individual basis, what can it do on sort of a mass consciousness basis? [What impact can music have on understanding] the history of our country?”
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Songs of America, out Tuesday, takes a critical look at the most important moments in American history — from the creation of the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights Movement and the Iraq War — through songs that continue to move listeners long after they were written, like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Born in the USA.”
“My hope is that people will read this and realize two things,” Meacham says. “One is the past was not as simple as they might’ve thought. And there’s a lot more capacity and reason to hope about the future because you can hear the tension and the tumult of the past in the music that shaped us. There was not this world that was ‘once upon a time,’ in some perfect kingdom, and there was one election or one event and then everything got difficult.”
Meacham wrote the main text, and McGraw analyzed pivotal songs in sidebars throughout the book. One of the singer’s favorite songs in the book is “The Liberty Song” by John Dickinson (from 1768), he explains.
“[The song was written] eight years before the Declaration of Independence. [It was] looking at our future and what they thought this country could become, and what it could mean for generations beyond us,” McGraw says. “I think that that was very profound. What we were embarking on was a grand experiment. It was something that had never been tried before.”
Through Songs of America, the authors hope to inspire readers by delving into these ideals — and providing a hard look at historical moments and figures that were anything but perfect.
“Jon always says, ‘What we have to do is not romanticize history in a lot of ways, and not think that it was all glorious.’” McGraw says. “We have to look at it square in the eye and see what we can do to improve and go forward… We’re going to have setbacks, and we’re going to make wrong decisions, but we’re going to move forward, if we keep a spirit of hope about us, and a spirit of looking to the future.”
The authors also think American songs can help bridge the current political divide.
“The problem we’ve gotten into is demonizing the other side and thinking that they’re coming from an evil point of view,” says McGraw. “Instead of coming from a point of view that, ‘I may not agree with you, but I understand that that’s coming from your heart.’”
He continues: “Music has a way of doing that, and bridging those gaps. I think it’s one of the oldest forms of communication in a lot of ways, and it’s certainly one of the oldest forms of galvanizing people.”
Songs of America is available on shelves now. The book tour kicked off Tuesday night in New York City, and continues through June 24 in Raleigh, North Carolina.