ATLANTA – Country music has been a family affair since its birth, from The Carter Family to the Cash clan to George Jones and Tammy Wynette. As we enter the 21st Century and the traditional role of the family changes, so does music and its reflection of culture. Where June Carter Cash and Tammy were more or less content to stand by their men, women in contemporary America are empowered and encouraged to be independent, self-assured and confident. Men have had to become more accepting of this shift in power, and the nature of relationships has changed. Interestingly, the marriage of two of today’s top country stars has become a template for these new roles, and both Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are making it work for them in ways never seen before.
Wednesday night (July 12) found Atlanta’s Philips Arena filling gradually with people from all walks of life, all there to witness the first concert of McGraw and Hill’s “Soul 2 Soul Tour 2000.” Small children and teenagers were seated next to middle-age couples and senior citizens, and everyone seemed to share the underlying sense that something special was about to happen. As unannounced opening act Keith Urban delivered a short, brave solo acoustic set to the cavernous, half-empty room, the crowd drifted in from the lobby and politely acknowledged his valiant effort.
Within minutes of Urban’s last song, the lights went down and a white, wrap-around curtain in the middle of the stage was illuminated with light, then slowly lifted up into the stage rig. The capacity crowd of more than 20,000 roared as Hill and her band rose from below center stage, and when the lights hit Hill’s incandescent sequined dress, the band dived into “What’s In It For Me.” Backed by three female singers, and with an ensemble featuring two guitars, drums, bass, fiddle and pedal steel, Hill strutted coyly around the stage, cocking a shoulder here, throwing a little hip twist there, and exuding a mixture of down-home innocence and not-so-subtle sexuality. It was obvious that she has become quite stage-savvy in the past several years, and she knows just how to work the crowd with non-verbal gestures and poses. Hill has traveled a great distance from her country roots, and both the material and the presentation were typical of a pop diva-in-training.
Progressing quickly from one song to the next, Hill moved easily around the unique stage set, spending time on the back walkway attending to fans seated behind the stage and posing on the raised podiums on either side of the stage. Each new position elicited a barrage of flashbulb flashes from the adoring crowd, and Hill responded with wide-eyed joy and big smiles. Sticking almost exclusively with the biggest hits of her successful recording career, she sang a number of her typical women’s power ballads, including the affirming “Secret of Life,” “That’s How Love Moves” and “Let Me Let Go,” which produced a big roar of recognition from the crowd. The band was rocking hard, and as psychedelic banners unfurled above them, Hill brought the crowd to its feet with an energetic performance of “Breathe.”
Hill slowed things down a bit when the band descended below stage level, leaving her alone with her keyboard player to do a unique version of “It Matters to Me” which garnered the undivided and virtually silent attention of the crowd. Immediately following was a mini-’60s set, featuring new outfits on the singers and a neo-psychedelic light show. Hill sang the Supremes’ “Love Child,” the song she performed earlier this year on VH1′s Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross, then followed with a blistering arrangement of “Piece of My Heart.” Far removed from the countrified version of the Janis Joplin tune that helped Hill break out early in her career, the new treatment made a clear statement about the singer’s new outlook. The departure from her country past was even more pronounced when Hill’s band broke into a techno-rave interlude, complete with heavy programmed beats and an impressive barrage of lights. Leading into “This Kiss,” she had the entire audience singing along, and she departed quickly when the band brought the tune to an end.
McGraw had a tough act to follow, but when taped music faded into the big backbeat of “Indian Outlaw” and the house went dark, it was clear from the noise that the crowd was ready for him. Stepping onto the same stage setup used by his wife, McGraw got the crowd rolling with “Heartbroke Again” and “Where the Green Grass Grows,” the first real country songs of the evening. With the fiddle taking front-and-center in the mix, McGraw was not even attempting to match the big sound of Hill’s set, relying instead on his obvious charisma and country sensibility to win the crowd’s approval (as if he needed to).
Dressed in a dapper black jacket and cowboy hat, McGraw quickly peeled down to a sleeveless, black T-shirt, which met the approval of the majority of the female fans in attendance. The one commonality he shared with Hill was his sex appeal, and like his wife he flaunted it with abandon. Alternating between mid-tempo sing-alongs such as “Refried Dreams” and ballads like “Everywhere” and “Don’t Take the Girl,” McGraw worked the crowd constantly, nodding, winking and waving to the sides and back of the stage. His brand of country fits into a nicely constructed formula that guarantees audience reaction, although after a while the sameness of many of the songs starts to wear thin.
McGraw threw in a few surprises, such as a cover version of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and a short tape of Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” which served as an intro to “Seventeen.” Saving his knockout punch for the end of the set, he had everyone singing along loudly with “I Like It, I Love It,” as he disappeared backstage.
Returning after a video montage of himself, Hill and their two children, McGraw started “It’s Your Love.” As Hill joined him for a six-song duet set, the couple moved back and forth, toying with each other and emphasizing the sensuality of the material. After a few affirming and provocative love songs, they took positions on opposite sides of the stage, and with McGraw playing solo acoustic guitar, they did a rendition of “Angry All the Time,” a song written by Austin-based husband-and-wife team Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. The moment provided a brief respite from the outpouring of declarations of love and lust, and it was the closest Hill came all night to doing a country song. As Hill’s band members came back for the finale, the couple tore into a rocking version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” and the crowd ate it up. It amounted to a clear-cut declaration of where country music finds itself today, aimed at Gen-Xers and baby boomers and drifting more into the pop realm than ever before.
Given the sales history of these two artists, the full house at Philips Arena, and the positive crowd response, it’s hard to find fault with what Hill and McGraw are doing. The dichotomy in their music — Hill’s pop orientation and McGraw’s retention of traditional country aspects — can be seen as a metaphor, both for what makes a marriage work and for how country music is presented today. It is a merging of genres and lifestyles; in order to survive, there has to be mutual transformation among those involved. Hill and McGraw make the dynamic work for them and, in turn, they give the people what they want. Or at least what the people have been told they want.