Faith Prevails

Hill Caps Landmark Year With CBS Special

Seven years after the release of her first album, Faith Hill this week marks a major milestone of pop cultural stardom — the network television special. More than platinum records, hit singles and music industry awards, a dedicated slot in prime time means an entertainer has arrived.

Hill’s hour-long moment in the spotlight, titled FAITH!, airs at 8 p.m. ET/PT Thursday (Nov. 23) on CBS. It features the 33-year-old singer in performance at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich., outside Detroit.

“We threw around a lot of ideas, but the thing I kept coming back to is the live show, the live show,” says Hill, sporting a denim jacket, with her hair pulled back in a lilac-colored bandana, during a recent interview at Warner Bros. offices on Music Row. “There is such energy that was happening night after night on this tour.”

The “tour” she refers to is the Soul 2 Soul outing Hill and husband Tim McGraw mounted this summer and fall. They kicked off in July, in Atlanta, and will wrap up Dec. 12 in Orlando. FAITH! was taped during a two-night stand in Auburn Hills, attended by more than 30,000 frenzied fans.

“Detroit has always been a great audience,” Hill says. “There’s just so much history that comes out of that city, I thought it would be kind of cool. I had a few technical problems, but we got past that. That’s when you’ve got to put on that coat of armor — OK, forget about what’s happening, I’ve got a job to do here and it’s going to be on camera and I can’t go back and fix it next week. I got in the moment and it was special.”

Viewers will see Hill perform many of her hits including “This Kiss,” “Breathe” and “The Way You Love Me.” B-roll footage supplements the performance segments, and McGraw joins his wife for a duet. There’s also a special, surprise guest.

Hill was behind the decision to capture part of the Soul 2 Soul tour for the special. In part, she knew it would be hard to duplicate the charged atmosphere of a real concert. But she also felt more comfortable on stage, she says.

“I thought it would be less pressure to be in my environment, on my stage, with my fans, with my band, ’cause I’ve been doing it night after night after night, and I feel comfortable there,” she explains.

Even so, there were some butterflies. “I was a nervous wreck before the show started, because there was so much that went on backstage, too,” she explains. “It was just really a busy couple of days, after a busy few months. The moment I stepped on stage, I forgot about all that and just performed.”

The network special comes in the middle of a busy week for Hill. She appeared on the Today show and on The Late Show With David Letterman, and she was a guest (Nov. 22) on Live With Regis. She and McGraw hit the road again this weekend, beginning with a Friday night show in Cincinnati.

The superstar from Star, Miss., has maintained a feverish pace throughout most of 2000. “I can’t imagine what else I could pack into a year,” she says.

The Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and the fan-voted Country Weekly Presents the TNN Music Awards named her Female Vocalist of the Year. She performed at the Academy Awards and the Grammys, and she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Hill graced the covers of McCall’s, US Weekly, Parade and Redbook magazines. Her Cover Girl ads appeared in Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle and Woman’s Day.

VH1 featured Hill in a Behind the Music episode and in Divas 2000, and the Lifetime cable channel profiled her in its Intimate Portraits series. Pepsi placed her in a TV ad, and the ALLTEL communications company signed her as a spokeswoman to appear in high-profile TV, radio and print ads (that’s not her real father in the TV ad for ALLTEL: “Mom says they’ve had enough of calls and visitors,” Hill says of her parents, who live in Star. “She said, ’If your daddy’s up on a commercial, we’ll never hear the end of it.'”)

“It’s been very busy,” Hill sighs. “I look back on my schedule and I go, ’OK, this is not possible.’ No way that we did all this this year.”

On the musical side, Hill has had a No. 1 country hit, “The Way You Love Me,” during the past year, and her duet with McGraw, “Let’s Make Love,” went to No. 6. Breathe, the album she released a year ago, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s overall chart, ahead of debuting new releases by Mariah Carey, Rage Against the Machine, Savage Garden and Prince, and has gone on to be certified four times platinum for sales of 4 million copies (her total certifications are over 14 million). The title track, in addition to topping the country singles chart at the end of last year, went to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in April.

She has four nominations for the American Music Awards, to be presented Jan. 8, including Favorite Female Artist — Pop/Rock, Favorite Female Artist — Country, Favorite Album — Country, and Favorite Artist — Adult Contemporary. Hill also has five nominations for the upcoming (Nov. 30) My VH1 Music Awards, where the nods are for You Want Fries With That Album (best music in an ad), Must Have Album, Song of the Year, Woman of the Year and Sexxxiest Video.

Oh yeah, and there’s “Where Are You Christmas,” the song and video from the new Jim Carrey movie, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Little Cindy Lou-Who (Taylor Momsen) sings the song in the film; Hill’s version plays as the credits roll. Written by James Horner, Will Jennings and Mariah Carey, the song sold Hill on participating in the project. “I listened to it, and I thought the song was beautiful,” she says. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t like the song, although I knew the movie was going to be huge. I’m recording a Christmas album next year, and the song is going to be on that.”

Though she has enjoyed a dream year, Hill also has endured criticism from some quarters for her pop-friendly music and for her crossover success. Throughout country music history, artists who appear to “get above their raisin'” — their country roots — sometimes have come in for harsh words from country’s traditionalist wing. The potshots at Hill reached a crescendo in October, just prior to the CMA Awards. Many predicted that she would not do well in the voting because of her pop leanings.

When she accepted her CMA award for Female Vocalist of the Year, Hill appeared to be on the verge of taking on her critics publicly. “I must say this,” she began. “Everyone has questioned where I’m at and what I’m doing, and I tell you something, I love this business and I love this industry and I love the people in this business and my heart is here and I work hard … ,” she said, before veering off into the usual list of thank yous.

“That particular week, I felt less comfortable in this town and a part of country music, than I have ever felt in my entire career,” Hill states frankly. “I was ashamed and embarrassed for this industry. I have proudly been a country artist. I have never said anything differently. But I have been attacked, personally, for the choices that I have made, and I was angry.

“When I started that comment, I was going someplace, and I grabbed a hold of myself and I said, this is not the place that I want to do this. This is not the time. I ended up saying, ’But my heart is here,’ I think is how I ended it … It wasn’t the time for me to speak my mind. If people want to spend their time talking about this and trying to figure out what I’m doing and what I’m not doing, if they’ve got time to do that, God bless ’em, but I certainly don’t have time to sit around trying to figure out what everybody else is doing. I’ve got to focus on what I’m doing, what my family is doing, and that’s it. It was a tough week. I have to be honest. I’ve not even told anyone this. I have felt more comfortable in other areas of the music industry than in my own backyard. I was embarrassed about that.”

Her victory caught her by surprise, Hill admits. Given the criticism leveled at her, she fully expected Lee Ann Womack, a more traditional singer whose “I Hope You Dance” had taken Song and Single of the Year, to win.

“I made a professional mistake that night,” Hill says now. “I’ve never used that moment to make a point, ever in my life. But I think I had had enough. It was so distasteful, from a person who has been true to herself. As an artist, that’s what you should be. Whenever everybody starts trying to do what everybody else thinks they should do, then this industry will be nothing and we won’t have radio stations, you’re not going to sell any records, nothing. Everybody’s going to be looking for a job. As an artist, you can’t be that way.”

After keeping an exhausing pace throughout 2000, Hill will not tour next year. Instead, she plans to record two albums — the Christmas set and a new studio album — and spend time with her family, husband McGraw and their daughters, Gracie, 3, and Maggie, 2. For some of her fans, Hill’s Thanksgiving night special may be the last glimpse of her in concert for months to come. She regards it as an opportunity to say thanks to her audience.

“I want them to know that I love doing what I do for a living,” she says, “that I’m grateful and thankful that they’ve given me the opportunity to do it, because I’ve had an incredible career. The last couple of years have been out of this world, there’s no question about that. I’m honest when I say that I’m humbled. It’s a lot for a Mississippi girl, but I’m carrying it, and I’m proud to carry it.”