20 Years Later: Tim McGraw's Controversial First Hit

Wendy Geller

Time certainly flies: This month marks the 20th anniversary of superstar Tim McGraw's very first hit single, “Indian Outlaw,” which cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard Country Singles charts in March of 1994 and also became a crossover hit.

Until then, McGraw had been trying to make it in Nashville for roughly four years. “Indian Outlaw” cracked Music City open for him, and eventually led to his first No. 1 album, "Not A Moment Too Soon." However, this success didn’t come without a little controversy.

Or, make that a lot of controversy. Namely, in the form of serious criticism from Native American groups who said that the lyrics -- which included references to wigwams and tomahawks -- promoted stereotypes. The then-chief of the Cherokee Nation said the tune was “offensive,” resulting in a few radio stations taking it off the air.

The producer of the song, James Stroud, himself was originally wary of releasing it as a single. He related to Great American Country in 2011 that he initially urged McGraw not to even cut it.

“I thought [the song] was the worst thing in the world,” Stroud recalled. “He said 'I want it for the first single anyway.' The bottom line was, we went and did this song.

"I told him it wasn’t going to be a hit…I was absolutely wrong. The thing blew up. Then I realized, after all this, that I published it. So, I really like it now.”

In the end, the song went on to sell over 600,000 copies. McGraw, who was 26 at the time, told the LA Times: "You're concerned any time somebody doesn't like something you do, but you're never going to please everybody. A lot of times a song or something like the 'tomahawk chop' isn't the real issue, but a means to an ends [for the protesters], a way to be heard."

In the same interview, when if he would object to a song portraying his home state as full of ignorant rednecks, Louisiana native McGraw replied: "It happens in country music every day. I see the entertainment value in it. I understand [the Native Americans'] right to be upset, but my personality doesn't go along with that."

McGraw's real concern was not being taken seriously after the song. He was determined to prove to his critics that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, something he showed when his follow-up record "All I Want” went platinum the next year.

He made good on that determination. Two decades later, he’s sold over 40 million albums in the U.S. It's a safe bet he’ll add to that tally when he releases his 13th studio album in May.