In September 2002, Tim McGraw released "Red Ragtop" as the lead single from his seventh studio album on Curb Records, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors. The song, written solely by songwriter Jason White, tells the story of what seems to be the typical, passionate, young adult relationship. McGraw acts as the song's narrator as he looks back on this nostalgic love affair that occurred when he was 20 and his girlfriend was 18 and they were both "green in the ways of the world." In the first verse, McGraw explains how his girlfriend would pick him up in a "red ragtop" and they'd drive around on summer nights, "running all the red lights."
"In the back of that red ragtop / She said, 'Please don't stop,'" McGraw sings in the simple chorus.
However, as the song continues in the second verse, it is revealed that the woman became pregnant. ("The very first time her mother met me her green-eyed girl had been a mother-to-be for two weeks.") It is then that the couple is faced with the harsh reality of life and they decide to have an abortion.
"So we did what we did and we tried to forget, and we swore up and down there would be no regrets in the morning light," he sings.
At the end of the song, McGraw reveals that he and the woman lost touch and he hasn't seen her for years. The song is bittersweet as McGraw looks back on the once-passionate relationship, but he concludes that there's no use in living with regret -- ("That's a waste of time, drive you out of your mind.") While McGraw understands there's no returning to that relationship, he does welcome memories from it, such as moments, like at the end of the song, when he sees a "young girl in a cabriolet" at a stoplight. As a whole, "Red Ragtop" achieves an interesting dichotomy as McGraw tells this raw and bittersweet story while upbeat country instrumentation continues throughout.
Controversy Surrounding 'Red Ragtop'
"Red Rag Top" was a solid radio success, landing at No. 5 on the Billboard country chart, but there was some pushback from country music radio stations when McGraw initially released it. Due to the tune's veiled mention of abortion, some radio stations initially resisted airing "Red Ragtop" in order to avoid complaints from listeners or in response to complaints.
A 2002 Orlando Sentinel article reported that of the 147 country stations reporting to Radio & Records magazine, seven stations refused to play the song.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, WTQR-FM in Winston-Salem, N.C. was a station that was hesitant to play it, but they eventually added it to the lineup.
"We didn't get complaints," said then-program director Bill Dotson in a 2002 article. "We were slow getting on it because we thought we might have complaints. But if it isn't hurting anyone else, let's get on it."
Former WKDF-Nashville Program Director Dave Kelly also commented on the song at the time, sharing that while some listeners were maddened by the song, others strongly related to it.
"We've had some negative calls, but only two or three have ended with the caller saying, 'I don't care who he is, I'm not listening to it,'" he shared. "You wouldn't believe the amount of calls saying, 'That's my life -- it reminds me of my ex-boyfriend.' Or their ex-girlfriend. People really relate to different aspects of the song."
"It's about three things: pain, loss, and regret," James told Billboard. "It's country personified."
"Red Ragtop" followed McGraw's many hit country songs from the '90s and early 2000s, including "Indian Outlaw," "Where The Green Grass Grows," "Please Remember Me," "Angry All The Time," "The Cowboy In Me," and many more. It preceded many more hits including "She's My Kind of Rain," "Real Good Man," "Watch the Wind Blow By," "Live Like You Were Dying," "Back When," "When The Stars Go Blue" and more. "Red Ragtop" was also featured on McGraw's second greatest hits album, Reflected: Greatest Hits Vol. 2, released in 2006.