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Faith Hill Never Stopped Being a 'Mississippi Girl'
By Michael McCall 
2005 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

Faith Hill peppers her conversation with sudden bursts of uninhibited laughter and with phrases like "Bless your heart," "Oh my gosh," "God bless them," "Isn't that sweet?" and "Don't you just love her?" 

In other words, she sounds exactly like thousands of other 30-something women raised in religious families in small Southern towns. Like many others, she moved to the city, worked hard, found success and gave shape to her dreams. Yet she held onto a piece of her rural identity, not only in the way she talks, but in the way she lives. As the song says, "a Mississippi girl don't change her ways just 'cause everybody knows her name."

Only now, after Hurricane Katrina, taking pride in being a Mississippi native has assumed new layers of meaning. As with many things creative, Hill's artistic move has, by coincidence, taken on significance she never could have predicted.  

"I'm so glad I am out there telling the world I'm from Mississippi right now," Hill said. "It's something I've always been proud of, but with all the devastation and damage, there's a lot of concern and I'm feeling a lot of connection."

For Hill, Mississippi's plight resembles experiencing a loved one facing a serious illness. Suddenly she wants to visit more often, and home occupies a larger part of her thoughts and her heart.

"I have so many friends and relatives along the coast," she explained. "They're doing OK, but you worry about them more. My parents and my older brother live north of the coast, and they were without power or water for about a week and a half or two weeks. There were a lot of trees down in Star, but it's nothing like on the coast."

Hill has toured the damaged areas along the Gulf Coast, and as with other eyewitnesses, she says that television footage and print photos can't convey the vastness of the damage. "I couldn't believe it when I went there to see it," she explained. "It's just mind-blowing, the devastation. I'd spent a lot of time there in the past, and I'd just recently been to Biloxi to work before all this happened. The amount of destruction is just unbelievable. It was so widespread and so far inland."

The storms and floods came as the single, "Mississippi Girl," from Hill's album Fireflies gained daily radio play and sat at the top of the charts. What surprised Hill was how she had to defend her choice to record a song about her raising and defend putting it on an album that had a more stripped-down, acoustic sound than her two previous albums, 2002's Cry and 1999's Breathe

"There's been so much said about it, and a lot of it is just plain wrong," she said. "But how do you defend it? Oh my gosh, I've even had the question, 'Is your hair dark now because you're going back to your roots?'"

 She lets out one of her characteristic bursts of laughter. "I mean, what do you say to that? Is that supposed to be a joke?"

She continues to laugh, but it dies down to a somber chuckle as she shakes her head in disbelief. "You know, to me, I've never left my roots behind," she continued. "I didn't on Cry, and I didn't on Breathe. They just sound differently because at that time, I was interested in going into a different part of who I am and what I want to sing. I cut my musical teeth in the church, in raise-the-roof Pentecostal churches. Of course, I was raised on Country Music as well, on Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and George and Dolly and Reba.

"But those are two different things - the church music and the Country Music. So my musical tastes are so extreme. I feel like I'm influenced by all the music I grew up with, and all the music that I love listening to now. Trying to find my place in all that is sometimes very complicated."

She accepts that her decisions can be confusing to others. "I know that Cry wasn't something that worked for Country radio, but it sold 3 million copies, and no one ever talks about that," she said with a laugh. "It's written about like it was a bomb, but it wasn't. I'm still very proud of it."

What she can't accept, she says, is people describing Fireflies as a calculated move - a return to straightforward Country Music inspired only by business, not artistic merit.

"That doesn't even fit into my realm of reality," she said. "I couldn't be less like that. The toughest part of all this is hearing that kind of criticism. That's what hurts. People mistake your actions for ... whatever. When someone can't see that things are honest and come from your heart, that's difficult to take. But I'm a big girl. You just have to stand tall and walk forward."

Hill says she created Fireflies because songs that came along that inspired her worked best in a sparer, rootsier setting. And after a couple of albums in which her music grew increasingly fuller and more theatrical, she felt a desire to do something simpler and more straightforward. 

John Rich of Big & Rich and Adam Shoenfeld co-wrote "Mississippi Girl" for Hill. 

"I basically stalked Faith Hill because I wanted to write a song for her," said Rich, who got to know the singer during Big & Rich's first national tour as opening act for Tim McGraw. Hill and the couple's daughters often joined McGraw during the tour, with Hill dressing down in her ballcap, jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. Rich got to see a side of the superstar few ever do, and she impressed him with how down-to-earth she was. 

"I've always admired the emotional way she sings," Rich said. "I knew I wanted to write a song for her. But I started hiding out watching her, and I wanted to capture that part of her in a song."

She had already gathered some other key songs including "I Ain't Gonna Take It Anymore" and the album's second hit, "Like We Never Loved at All." She'd put aside a jazzy tune called "Paris" (a hidden track on Fireflies), at first thinking it might be too unusual for her to record. But as the album filled out, she realized it wasn't so different after all. 

Then, as she thought she was nearing the end of recording, Nashville song publisher Melanie Howard sent Hill a song by Lori McKenna, a Massachusetts singer-songwriter and mother of five. Hill listened to the song, "If You Ask," and flipped for it. She immediately requested to hear everything McKenna had written. It turned out to be quite a lot - McKenna had released four independent albums.

"I couldn't believe the honesty in her writing," Hill said. "It was so human. I just fell in love with her. There was a while there that I didn't listen to anything but her records. I knew I was going to cut several of her songs."

Besides "If You Ask," Hill cut McKenna's "Stealing Kisses" and "Fireflies," which became the album's title. The two appeared together on an "Oprah" segment devoted to Hill. McKenna has since been signed to Warner Bros. Records and had her most recent album, Bittertown, re-released by the major label.  

"There's still not a week that goes by that I don't listen to Lori's music," Hill said. "She just kills me. And I love her as a person now. I've really gotten to know her and she's just a great girl - very funny, very smart and a great mom."

At one point, Hill thought McKenna's "Stealing Kisses" would be the leadoff cut. But others convinced her to start with "Mississippi Girl," a decision that obviously worked well. 

"It was a good way to introduce myself back into the market," she conceded. "It was what I needed to say at that moment, and it's fun to sing live and the crowd loves it. If it was up to me, I could've done a whole album of Lori McKenna songs, but it's good to hit different marks on an album. You have to have those feel-good songs that make you feel great." 

So there she goes again - defending herself for having contradictory creative impulses. She laughs loud and long at that thought. "You know, I have to walk to the beat of my own drum, for sure," she sighed. "Who wants to be predictable, to be a follower? I have three daughters, and I want them to see that I follow my heart and don't always take the safe, easy way. I'd want them to be the same way."     

On the Web: www.faithhill.com

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