Love and Industry

Country music Nashville is a town of handlers, of purportedly insightful managers and publicists and producers and record company presidents. In 1993, when Tim McGraw was selling millions of copies of a garish down-home dance curiosity entitled "Indian Outlaw" and Faith Hill was making a name for herself with a partially blank, partially cute cover of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," she had handlers and he didn't. McGraw's sole blue-chip business connection was James Stroud, the exceedingly professional, sometimes alarmingly prolific producer who now heads up the Nashville wing of Dreamworks.

McGraw's other producer was Byron Gallimore, a youngish publishing vet who, referring to a band for whom he was then trying to secure a recording contract, said to me on the phone one afternoon during the early '90s, as I gazed at the dull river out side my downtown Nashville apartment, "People here like 'em, but this band could really go to town with a big-picture guy, with a Clive, involved." I wasn't nuts about his band, but Gallimore obviously could think beyond Nashville, and I never forgot his name.

A former receptionist at Warner Bros. Records, Faith Hill, on the other hand, seemed the total if lovely creation of handlers; she was lousy with them. Her A&R person was Martha Sharpe, who had signed and done brilliant work in the '80s with Randy Travis. Her manager was Gary Boor man, an L.A.-based powerhouse who represented Dwight Yoakam and whose rock clients now include Garbage. And she was produced by Scott Hendricks, a former engineer who had zoomed into megahitmaker position, crafting records for Restless Heart, Alan Jackson, and Brooks and Dunn.

The package for Take Me as I Am, Hill's '93 debut, found her sitting innocently and gorgeously on a sofa in softest lighting, dressed in faded jeans and a starched white blouse, yet it conveyed the kind of contemporary casualness that comes only from a million meetings and phone calls; she could have doubled as a New Orleans Gap model. McGraw's package for Not a Moment Too Soon, his quintuple-platinum second album facilitated by "Indian Outlaw," evinced few de sign aspirations beyond filling Wal-Mart shelves. It was the sort of down-market presentation that New Yorkers occasionally imagine Nashville concocts on purpose.

Cut to 1996: The Louisiana "Indian Outlaw" phenom marries the Mississippi biz princess. A year later, McGraw releases Everywhere, the second straight album on which, defeating the "Achy Breaky Heart" syndrome of death-by-novelty as resoundingly as anyone ever has, he flat-out refuses to be a prisoner of even wonderfully funky cheese. On the title song, a swift ballad indicative of Stroud's technical know-how, Gallimore's ambitious soulfulness, and the singer's own increasing vocal definition, McGraw grapples with geo graphical distance and psychological intimacy, using a liquid word-to-word conscientiousness that's turning into a major country singing style.

One song is a McGraw-Hill duet. It is Hill's first recording since '95's It Matters to Me, her superior follow-up, an album marked by songs of discontent, by the elegantly twangy title suggestion of deep unhappiness as well as an even more intense portrayal of female dissatisfaction (excellently written by Alan Jackson) called "I Can't Do That Anymore." "It's Your Love," the duet is called, and nowhere in '90s pop will you find a more unevasive portrayal of one person wrapped up in another. "It sends a shock right through me," McGraw sings, as though he might literally fade away, vaporizing into the heady air of unalloyed desire itself. Hill, in the background, ditches the prim, careful, heavily comped vocal style of her previous albums. She blossoms into a real Nashville pop-soul singer. Together, McGraw and Hill create one of the great singles of the decade, a duet of George and Tammy dimensions. To hear it is to be swept, messed, torn up.

The extraordinary thing about Faith, the album Hill, now 31 and the mother of two children, released in 1998 is that it benches her early handlers. Instead, it applies the maverick lessons of Tim McGraw, who has al ways worked within the Nashville sys tem with the self-determination of an indie-rocker, a guy who once rushed to sing Tony Rich's r&b crossover hit "Nobody Knows" in concert. And Faith brings on Dan Huff, who produces country now from the point of view of the hotshot L.A. session guitarist he used to be, and Gallimore.

Faith also offers the most free and true music Hill has ever done. On "Let Me Let Go" Hill arranges the lush accumulation of fraying edges of her voice to a swaying Michael McDonald–ish country-soul tune about leaving; it's like a bigger-voiced Tammy Wynette gone on Faith Evans. On "Somebody Stand by Me," an awe some Sheryl Crow–Todd Wolfe Southern rock ballad, Hill's voice breaks and scrapes with humid Mississippi breathiness, pulling itself together for a major beer-nuts bel canto effect on the choruses. But the key to the al bum is "This Kiss", the track that put Hill on VH-1 and in fashion mags, a billowing celebration of true love and multisyllabic adjectives; she dares to sing the word "centrifugal" as though it were "baby." Gallimore is all over this, lifting choruses heavenward, put ting bits of steel guitar where Patrick Leonard would do a string pad on a Madonna track. "This Kiss," it's something you might expect from a Clive.

A year and then some after its release, Faithremains in the country top five and showed up as the "Pace setter" on last week's Billboard Top 200 pop chart. Meantime, McGraw, now 32, debuted at No. 1 on both charts with A Place in the Sun.Unusually well-conceived, the collection's 14 songs concern time. "Seventeen" is a country-rockish memory of prom-era years, of first brushes with rock and roll and sex and blue jeans, when you're "standing on the edge of everything." But these kids hanging out on the bayou bridge, feeding fish potato chips and pondering the secrets of existence, just like the guy in the dynamite uptempo "Something Like That" who longs to impress a girl at the county fair but has a nasty barbecue stain on his white T-shirt, inevitably turn into the people who ponder, as McGraw sings on another quicksilver track, "My Next Thirty Years."

Stroud-Gallimore-McGraw make potato-chip country, a little rock and a little folk and a little pop, always reliably rhythmic. Yet McGraw, on superbly felt and built ballads like "Please Remember Me," doesn't stop there. He recognizes that even potato-chip country can manage real grandeur, can be as passionately and deeply sung as George Jones. And he pulls it off: His fast-moving, word-conscious tenor is now as good as country has. It's a long way from "Indian Outlaw."

But are you really a country star, these days, if you aren't a country star on TV? "I'm OK onstage," McGraw told me just before he won the Academy of Country Music's Best Male Vocalist—and Hill won Best Fe male Vocalist—in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. "But I'm uncomfortable at awards shows, much less VH-1 Divas Live. I don't know how Faith is able to pull it off. She loves it, though. She's the type of person who can talk to anybody. She has such mass appeal."

On the ACM show, McGraw gave one of the evening's truly terrific performances, singing Rodney Crowell's "Please Remember Me" as a superimposed wash of raindrops fell over him. "All our tears have reached the sea," he tells his departed lover. The song is about separation, with its falling minor-key orchestrations dramatizing the "valleys and peaks" McGraw sings of; it's the sort of song you really can't put across unless somewhere in yourself you know what perfect hell separation can or might be. The chorus, surprisingly chromatic and sharps-laden for country, is stunning. Its sad subject matter notwithstanding, this music on TV managed just the right air of bittersweet triumphalism for the story, so far, of Tim and Faith.

"We can relate to each other," McGraw told me about his marriage, "personally and professionally. The way our careers are, where we grew up. And when you're both in the business, it's hard to pull bullshit on each other about what you have to do there. I feel happiness and, being in a great place in life, that gives you confidence when you go to work. It's almost ridiculous, it's so good." In 1995, kicking off his third album, McGraw sang "All I Want Is a Life." Now he and Faith Hill apparently have one. You hear, at any rate, something like that in their music.

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