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Dad Hatter

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Tim McGraw didn’t meet his biological father until he was 12. But he can’t get enough of his own three children with fellow singing titan Faith Hill. “He bathes them, changes diapers and brushes their hair and teeth,” says Hill. Is there a connection between not knowing your father and turning into country music’s Mr. Mom? “Maybe,” says McGraw, 35. “I just always, always wanted kids.” He and Hill may even want some more, he adds. “It depends on what day you ask and how much sleep we had.”

Certainly McGraw’s plate—Hill’s, too, for that matter—is full. In a triple-play that his dad, former big league pitcher Tug McGraw, might admire, on Nov. 26 Tim released both his eighth album, Tim McGraw & the Dancehall Doctors, and his similarly titled first book, which chronicles the CD’s making. The next night he hosted a TV special on NBC, followed by Hill’s own Thanksgiving concert the following evening. If all that doesn’t prove that McGraw and Hill are the First Couple of Country, try this: In a Billboard tally of the most-played artists in all formats, Hill is No. 1 and McGraw No. 3. (Destiny’s Child splits the difference.) “It’s a good time,” says Hill, 35. “It’s great to be sharing this together.”

Once seen as an “ornery” bad boy because “he has strong convictions and is very outspoken,” according to his friend, country singer Martina McBride, McGraw is a model family man. He rarely goes more than three days without seeing Hill or Gracie, 5, Maggie, 4, and Audrey, 1, who was born prematurely at less than 4 lbs. (PEOPLE, Oct. 28). And the three-day rule applies to the couple’s six-bedroom suburban house and 800-acre farm near Nashville as well as to the road. “It’s simple,” McGraw says. “The girls are going to go with Faith wherever she goes, and I’m going to go wherever Faith and the girls go.”

Still, Hill insists, her dutiful hubby is “a rebel with a cause.” He ignored executive requests to make his new album with studio musicians in Nashville and took his own eight-man band on the road to record out of the suits’ snooping range in Shokan, N.Y. “This was my guy trip for the year,” he says of the eight-day session (which, yes, broke the three-day rule). The album’s first single, “Red Ragtop,” which he didn’t write, stirred controversy with its lyrics about a pregnancy that ends in abortion. “As an artist, if you aren’t stirring people up a little bit,” McGraw says, “you’re not really doing anything.”

McGraw stirred up police in Buffalo in 2000, when he and singer Kenny Chesney were arrested in a scuffle after Chesney hopped on a police horse; both singers were acquitted of all charges. Lately McGraw’s been limiting himself to practical jokes. At a recent concert he locked banjo player Bob Minner in a dressing room and hung a sign that said, “Don’t open this door or you are fired,” leaving Minner to stagger onstage three songs into the set. “McGraw was laughing so hard he almost had to stop the show,” recalls guitarist Darran Smith.

Away from the boys, though, Hill sees him as “my brick. He’s my wall.” After she got a standing ovation for a performance at the Nov. 6 Country Music Association Awards, he was wiping away tears in the audience. “I didn’t see him because [from the stage] it was black,” she says. “I felt him. I knew that he was confident but he was nervous. I saw him afterwards; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile so big except when the girls were born.”

McGraw says his current comfort stokes his desire to succeed. “It’s like when you are up to bat and you start getting comfortable in the middle of the season,” he says, sounding much like Tug’s son—although when he was growing up in Start, La., his mother, Betty Trimble, didn’t tell him that he wasn’t the natural son of his stepfather, Horace Smith, until he stumbled on his birth certificate at age 11. Home life these days is all about stability: “When you have kids, it straightens everything out and gives you a reason and a purpose.” As band member Smith puts it: “I have never seen a guy who talks more about his wife. It’s almost to the point where you want to say, ‘Man, give us a break.'” McGraw might one day do just that: break with music entirely. “Either one of us would walk away if we needed to take care of our family,” he says. “And it will get to that point one day when time needs to be spent more in other places.”

Jill Smolowe

Beverly Keel in Nashville