The first time I saw Faith Hill perform, I was more wowed by her clothes than her music. As she strutted across the stage belting out her early country hits (“Take Me As I Am,” “Wild One”) she debunked every cliche about bad Nashville fashion. There were no sequins, no fringe, no ruffles. Instead, this lanky blonde from Star, MS, came on like a betwanged Vogue model-singing for an arena of cry-in-your-beer country fans while wearing gowns and pantsuits designed by Richard Tyler (high-fashion tailor to the likes of Julia Roberts and Ashley Judd).
Three years later I meet Hill again–for an interview in the lobby of her hotel. Now, at 31, she’s a bona fide country-music diva–with one triple-platinum album, two double-platinum albums, seven No. 1 singles, and a string of major awards to her credit. What’s more, since that concert in 1996, Hill’s personal life has taken off like a live-action fairy tale. She fell in love with and married Tim McGraw, 32, a top-draw country superstar and son of baseball great Tug McGraw. And then, she had two babies in two years.
“My babies are upstairs,” she says right off. “Maggie just ate, and Gracie just had a bath. Maggie is nine months old, and Gracie is two years old. And I’ve been on the road for four years.”
It’s not your typical interview opener. But Hill can’t help herself. The same passion that has kept her career in overdrive since the release of her first album, Take Me As I Am, in 1993, is now focused on her two daughters.
Hill was eight months pregnant with Grade when she went into the studio to record her third, most recent album, Faith. Critics and fans concur, it is her most soulful and creative to date, snagging four Grammy nominations this year. Her single “This Kiss” crossed over to the top ten on the pop charts and spiced up the soundtrack of the film Practical Magic. Another single, “Let Me Let Go,” appears on the soundtrack of the movie Message in a Bottle.
Even as Hill shows the strains of any mom with two small children, she announces very determinedly that she and her husband would like to have five. “I’ve always wanted a family as much as I’ve wanted my career,” she says. “I won’t lie: It is a lot of work, and I’m tired. Having two little girls so close in age is almost like having twins. But we learned how to pack and get around and do what we have to do. It’s amazing what you can wake up every morning and accomplish as long as you’re happy.”
When they fly, mom and girls travel with a giant hockey bag stuffed with toys (Teletubbies are a favorite), two diaper bags, a bag of snacks, two car seats, rocking chairs-and, of course, favorite blankets from home. But comfort is much easier on the “baby bus,” Hill’s transportation of choice to most of her tour dates. In fact, she’s now ensconced in a unique new bus that was custom-made for her family-designed around a giant 42-inch refrigerator. “I wanted that bad, so I can prepare healthy meals at home and then heat them up out on the road,” she says.
Dad, who is also on the road much of the year, joins them every three days–no matter what. It’s a scheduling Rubik’s Cube for their management companies, but a system that seems to be working for the family. “We’re together most of the time,” Hill says. “We hate to be apart. And Gracie is at the age where she’s always asking for her dad now. She’s Daddy’s girl.”
At first glance, Hill and McGraw seem an unlikely couple: high-fashion babe meets no-frills country boy (think Brace Springsteen in a cowboy hat). But at heart they agree on what matters most. “Tim is very simple, not into the `star life,'” Hill explains. “When we walk into our home, we close the doors and forget about what we do for a living. We’re able to watch television, cook dinner, and play with the kids.”
Hill and McGraw were born the same year and grew up in the same neck of the woods–he’s from Louisiana, she’s from Mississippi. “From the beginning I felt very comfortable with him,” Hill says. “It felt like home.”
McGraw grew up not knowing who his father was–even though Tug McGraw’s baseball cards hung on his bedroom wall. Tim’s mother was only 19 when he was born, the result of a brief affair with his father. When Tim was 11, he went searching for an old picture and came across his birth certificate–which named Tug McGraw as his dad. The following year, when the Philadelphia Phillies came through town, the two met for the first time. But it wasn’t until Tim was in his teens that he began to grow close to his dad and start building the loving relationship they have today.
Hill, on the other hand, was adopted. “Tim and I have an understanding there,” she says softly. “Became he didn’t know his father until he was eighteen, we had similar feelings. We talked about children soon into our relationship because it was so important to me. I had to find out if it was as important to him.” It was: “Tim was very sure he wanted a family.”
But unlike McGraw, Hill was close to her father while she was growing up. He worked at the Presto Manufacturing Company plant in Jackson, MS, from which he recently retired after 37 years. He was physically strong and admired for his genial personality, but sadly he never learned to read or write.
One of 14 children, Hill’s father was forced to quit school in the fourth grade to help work the family farm. “It was pretty much the same story in a lot of places in the South,” Hill says. “He never went back to school, and he just got by. He’s done really well. But there’s a whole other world out there in reading. I didn’t understand how important it was until I became an adult and realized how much he missed out on.”
On May 1, 1996, Hill started the Faith Hill Family Literacy Project, cosponsored by Warner Bros. Records and Time Warner. Her goal is to create awareness of the problem of illiteracy in America, which plagues 20 percent of the adult population, by some estimates. And she is planning to begin book drives at her concerts, setting up bins where fans can donate books to be distributed to local schools, libraries, and children’s homes. As for her father, since his retirement, he has returned to a literacy program that he tried several years ago. “It’s very frustrating for an adult,” Hill says. “It’s a lot more difficult than it is for a child.”
Hill is happy to be able to honor her parents, who, despite their strict Baptist beliefs, supported her in her bid to become a singer. At just 19, she decided to move to Nashville to follow her dream; her father drove her there. “I can still see his face to this day,” she recalls, “sitting with empty boxes all around him. He had tears in his eyes, and he just waved good-bye and said, `Take care. I love you. We are behind you one hundred percent.’ It still gets to me when I think about it.”
For the next six years, Hill supported herself with odd jobs, from selling T-shirts at the country-music festival Fanfare to working in the merchandising department for Reba McEntire’s company. “They had a mail-order business, and I was in charge of filling orders,” she recalls. “I was so sick of Reba. I love her so much, but after eight hours a day of Reba shirts and pajamas, clocks and watches, necklaces and key chains and hat pins … oh, my Lord!”
All the while, Hill grabbed every opportunity to perform as a backup singer and was eventually spotted by a Warner Bros. scout. When she went into the studio at 25 to record Take Me As I Am, she was ready to take on the world.
Today, in New York City, Hill is due at The Rosie O’Donnell Show in 15 minutes. Gracie is especially excited about playing with Rosie’s son, Parker, in the child-care center at the studio. “The gifts go everywhere that I go,” says Hill. “But going to the Rosie show is special.”