July 16, 2005

Singer Faith Hill reclaims her country roots

By Phyllis Stark

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Who is Fern Holloway? If you're one
of the handful of insiders in her organization, you know that
is the alias under which prereleases of Faith Hill's new CD,
"Fireflies," were sent to members of her management team and

After Hill's last album, 2002's "Cry," leaked out on the
Internet ahead of its official release date, her organization
made plans to keep the new album under wraps until just before
its Aug. 2 release.

After all, there's a lot riding on a project that, if all
goes according to plan, will be Warner Bros. Nashville's
blockbuster for this year and well into next.

"Fireflies" is Hill's sixth album. Each of her previous
projects has a multiplatinum certification from the Recording
Industry Assn. of America, so expectations are equally high
here. Her last two albums each debuted at No. 1 on the
Billboard 200.

Like Hill's last few albums, "Fireflies," contains a mix of
musical styles. But it is arguably the strongest collection of
songs she has ever put together.

Country radio programers who complained that there was
nothing they could play on "Cry" will discover a wealth of
potential singles. And fans who know Hill from her pop
crossover hits are likely to find something to like on this CD
as well.


The first single, "Mississippi Girl," returns Hill solidly
to the country format where her career started and continued
even after she became a crossover star, beauty magazine cover
girl and Hollywood actress.

The biographical "Mississippi Girl" is No. 4 on the
Billboard Hot Country Songs chart this week and the
fastest-rising single of Hill's 12-year career. If it reaches
the summit, as it is expected to do, it will be Hill's ninth
No. 1 country hit. She has also had eight top 10 hits in adult
contemporary radio.

Big & Rich's John Rich, one of Nashville's hottest
songwriters, contributed "Mississippi Girl" and two other songs
to the album, including likely next single "Like We Never Loved
at All." The latter includes guest vocals from Hill's husband
and fellow country star, Tim McGraw.

On tour with McGraw last summer, Rich says he followed Hill
around asking her questions until he had enough material to
write "Mississippi Girl," which even includes a verse about
Hill's first small acting role in the film "The Stepford

Hill agrees with Rich's version of events, noting, "It kind
of sounds like a stalking, doesn't it?"

But it paid off for Rich, who wrote the song with Big &
Rich guitarist Adam Shoenfeld.

"To be able to write a song that gives somebody like Faith
Hill an entrance back into where she wanted to (be) -- good
lord -- that's bigger than getting an ASCAP check," Rich says.
"It's a silver bullet back at the target she was wanting to get
back to with her music. I'm in awe of her talent."

Hill says "Mississippi Girl" expresses just who she is.
"I'm a very simple, approachable, nice, good person who just
happens to have a big career," she says. "I've had an
incredible climb and done things that even I could never dream
that I would ever do, but I have remained the same person."


Regardless of country radio's reaction three years ago,
Hill says she remains proud of the "Cry" album. "It was
definitely a different record, but I had to make that record
and I am so proud of it," she says.

Once the recording process on "Fireflies" drew to a close,
Hill was startled to realize that it had taken two years.

"I was just kind of lost in the whole process and I didn't
realize that we had been working on this album for that long,"
she says. "Towards the last six months it all started to fall
in place."

Hill says the strength of her albums comes largely from the
songs she chooses to cut, since she is not a songwriter

"I rely completely on the songs that are brought to me in
order to make an album," she says. "It just took this long to
figure out what it was I wanted (those songs) to say."

Hill recorded more than twice the 14 songs that made it to
the album. But she says all the songs she chose for the final
cut are "me in some kind of way."

In addition to Rich, "Fireflies" contains songs from many
of Nashville's A-list writers including Rivers Rutherford,
Darrell Scott, Craig Wiseman and Troy Verges.

But Hill's secret weapon on this album is the discovery of
singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. Until now a largely unknown
talent, McKenna is about to become a hot commodity thanks to
Hill's inclusion of three of her songs on "Fireflies,"
including the title song.

It was the discovery of McKenna's songs, Hill says, that
put the whole album on track. In fact, Hill had once previously
declared the album finished. But when she found McKenna's work,
Hill called her co-producers and told them she wanted to go
back in the studio.

"I think they all wanted to strangle me at that moment,"
she admits.

McKenna writes from the perspective of a woman old enough
to have seen enough of life to have been disillusioned and
inspired by it. The first song of McKenna's that Hill heard,
"If You Ask," is one of the three she recorded.

"I really felt like I could interpret these songs. I feel
like I wrote them," Hill says. "It's hard to make that
connection sometimes. That's why, as an artist, I have to be
really patient and be strong in what it is I want to do.
Sometimes I just have to experiment with a lot of stuff and
figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it."