Hill Country

According to country music's critics, ever since Billy Ray Cyrus broke through in the early '90s, looks are more important than talent. Indeed, from most perspectives, Nashville these days seems to be swarming with hatted hunks and model-perfect babes. Count Faith Hill as one such artist. Yet behind her stunning good looks (she's been named one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World), there is talent.

Since her official coming out in 1993, Hill has won countless awards, had numerous number-one radio hits, released two full-length albums that have each sold better than two million copies and toured with the country mega-star likes of Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. Her personal life also became fodder for the tabloids when she became involved with and then married one of those aforementioned country hunks, Tim McGraw, whom she has toured with since 1996. Hill recently released her third album, Faith, a much-delayed collection that sums up, to a certain degree, the changes -- both personal and professional -- the singer has undergone since her last release more than two years ago.

"It really wasn't something that was planned," says Hill of the significant gap between albums. "I had four singles off my second album; I was on tour. Then I took a year and a half off the road to work on the new album and to have a family. It wasn't a conscious effort to take that much time."

Making Faith was radically different from her experience with previous albums. "I had different producers, both of whom I had never worked with before," Hill says. "The search for songs remained the same, and that is always difficult. But everything else was different, from where we recorded to some of the musicians that we used. Another thing was that neither producer heard what the other was recording, so that made it interesting."

Working with two producers is rare enough in Nashville, but Hill felt she needed to bounce ideas off both Dann Huff -- who's previously worked with the Wiggins -- and McGraw producer Byron Gallimore. Fortunately, her label went along with the idea, and she also receives producer credit for some of her own creative input on Faith. The sessions for the album resulted in a hefty 28 tracks, with only 12 making the final cut. "The songs that made it are the ones that jumped out at me," Hill says simply.

Hill's choice of songwriters is particularly interesting this time around. The list includes such popular Nashville regulars as Beth Neilsen Chapman, Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg. But she also strayed outside of Music Row circles for cuts written by Aldo Nova and Sheryl Crow. "My management is out of Los Angeles," she explains, "I've got connections in New York and everywhere in-between. It didn't matter where the songs came from. I'm a fan of Crow's and I just love that song [a tune co-written with Todd Wolfe called "Somebody Stand by Me"]. It fit me totally. It's got a gospel color to it, and that's the kind of song I grew up singing."

As to why she doesn't record her own songs, Hill replies, "I don't have the time to write now. It's a craft and a gift that needs to be fostered every single day, and there are other things I want to do. Besides, I have a one-year-old baby girl who keeps me busy enough."

We move in a more serious direction as the sticky subject of commercial radio and its relation to the samey state of today's country music comes up. Smoothly dodging any direct confrontation on the issue, Hill instead addresses the greatness of many of yesterday's heroes and why they deserve a permanent place on the airwaves.

"The people in country today are getting younger, and they didn't listen to George Jones or Tammy Wynette, unfortunately," she says. "To be totally honest with you, the first record I ever owned was an Elvis Presley record, and it wasn't country. In this day and age, I wish the younger generation -- the folks who are behind me and Tim -- we're 30 years old and have been doing this professionally for five years -- I wish they had the opportunity to study the greats, and I wish we still heard them on the radio. I really do."

Hill pauses with a nervous laugh: "I wish there was a way to insert George and Tammy and Merle and Loretta on occasion. Just for the listener to hear what country music is. I think it's a crime that they don't. I believe there's some really great country music coming out of Nashville today, but I hope we don't go so far that we forget about the legends that came before us."

Faith Hill performs Sunday, June 7, at the George Strait Country Music Festival, Rice Stadium. Showtime is 1 p.m. Also performing: George Strait, Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, Asleep at the Wheel, Lila McCann, Lee Ann Womack and Jesse Dayton. Tickets are $27.50 to $47.50. For info, call 629-3700.

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Jim Caligiuri