From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Backstage at Tim McGraw's Kansas City, Mo., tour stop, the atmosphere is filled with testosterone. A half dozen shirtless band members grunt as they shoot hoops in the gated stadium lot, while a pair of sweaty crew-hands toss a football between rows of tour buses. The man himself is stretched out on his dressing room couch in a white tank and red nylon shorts, while a guy with a tattoo needle perches above his ankle, ready to give the star a memento of his 34-date summer tour, his first in three years without wife Faith Hill. Kicking off his navy Crocs, McGraw announces in mock concern, "I don't know if my wife is going to like this!"

Hill will no doubt take it in stride. "She'll say, 'I'm not your mother!' " he says, laughing. After nearly 12 years of marriage, Hill must know that sometimes her man likes to act like one of the boys.

But despite indulging in such macho pursuits on the road, McGraw says his girls—daughters Gracie, 11, Maggie, 10, and Audrey, 6—and wife are never far from his mind. Especially when the self-professed "moody kid" needs some organizational aid: "I'll call Faith and I'll say, 'When do I come home again?' or 'When do I go back out?' She's so type A that she writes everything down. She's the boss, that's for sure. And that's the way I like it. That way I don't have to think!" Whatever their personal dynamic, the Tim-Faith pairing sure hasn't lost its spark. For his wife's 40th last year, McGraw hired out the luxury yacht Christina O (as in Onassis, the Greek shipping family) and threw her a surprise party on a Greek island. "I wanted to see her dressed like a Greek goddess!" says McGraw. "She had this white dress and a tan and looked awesome." And on their 10th anniversary in 2006, McGraw set up a four-poster bed in a Lawrence of Arabia-type tent in a meadow on their Franklin, Tenn., farm and rented a movie projector and screen. "There were roses everywhere and a big bonfire outside," he says. "She likes foreign films, so we laid in bed, ate steaks and watched foreign films all night." Even more special: McGraw penned a song for the occasion—one that you'll never hear on the radio. "It was a one-shot deal," he says. "I wanted it to be for that moment and I didn't want to share it with anybody."

Despite such romantic gestures, McGraw admits he's far from a perfect husband. "I can be pretty self-centered and thoughtless," he says. "I'll be out doing guy stuff—like going to the farm to bird hunt—and not call, not realizing that they're waiting for me to be home." Still, the Louisiana native says he treasures his domestic routine, whether it's coaching the girls' basketball and softball teams, a Father's Day bowling outing ("Faith is awesome—she kicked my ass!") or double-dating (dinner and a movie) with pals Martina and John McBride. McGraw's complicated relationship with his own father, star baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, who died of cancer in 2004, taught the singer the value of family togetherness. "That non-relationship instilled in me that I wanted to be a good father," says McGraw, who was raised primarily by his mom and only discovered at age 11 that the baseball hero was his biological father. Only later did the two become close. (The singer cared for his father in his dying days.) "Any time a parent dies, there are unresolved issues, and I probably have a few more than most people. But you have to take the good with the bad and move on. You're not living for that relationship. You're living for your own kids and your wife."

And that means taming a few of his youthful vices: "I don't drink anymore," he says. Not even the odd beer. "I'm not a moderate person, and I'll be the first to say there have been times when things were taken to the extreme. It's time to grow up a bit. Plus," he says laughing, "I got really fat!" His health—and his kids—were his motivation. "I want to take care of myself," he says. "It's a time in my life where you sort of reflect and reevaluate your life and what you want to get out of it." These days his guilty pleasures are more subdued: watching Deadliest Catch on TV or listening to the 11-CD Classic Soft Rock collection he recently ordered off a TV infomercial. "It's all great songs I remember as a kid—and I have to admit, I do like Air Supply!" says McGraw, who has a CD of his own in the works. If it's hard to imagine McGraw grooving to "Even the Nights Are Better" during his daily workout on the elliptical machine, imagine getting a glimpse of his one attempt at Pilates with Faith. "I couldn't walk for a week!" he recalls. "God didn't make me to bend that way." Although determined to keep fit, he's also realistic—and lighthearted—about aging. "At the CMT Awards there were all these young people there, and some fan said we looked like Ma and Pa Kettle!" he says. Still, he insists, the best is yet to come. "I feel like I'm really hitting my prime," he says. "I'm only getting better and I got a lot more headroom to go."