By Jim Jerome
August 21, 2000 12:00 PM

My ring is filthy,” says Faith Hill, eyeing her canary yellow five-carat rock from husband and fellow country star Tim McGraw. Hill is kicking back in her dressing room backstage at Arrowhead Pond arena in Anaheim, Calif., a recent stop on the couple’s 42-city sold-out Soul2Soul 2000 tour. “It’s got toothpaste in there, hair spray, some milk.” Hill is, after all, a hands-on mom. She has just scraped Mexican food off the plates of daughters Gracie, 3, and Maggie, 2, following a feast in the catering hall among the 110-member caravan of crew and musicians. Hill takes it all in stride. As backup singer Mica Roberts says, “I’ve seen Faith change a diaper three minutes before she walks onstage.”

What’s a little guacamole on Mommy’s ring when it’s from her beloved “soulmate”? “She’s the coolest person,” says McGraw. “She’s a straight shooter who doesn’t take any [crap] and knows what she wants out of life. Our relationship is unbelievable.” Says Hill, 32: “Tim has given me confidence and strength and my foundation. He makes me feel like I can conquer the world.”

She’s well on her way—at least in the demimonde of pop-country music. Hill’s carefully honed image may have evolved since her 1993 No. 1 debut hit “Wild One”—from girl next door to cover girl next door—but she says she’s the same: “driven,” “ambitious” and totally in charge. Touring with a husband and two kids hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for her career and its rigors. “Faith wanted this in the worst way and was willing to do whatever needed to be done,” says Martha Sharp, the retired talent scout who landed Hill at Warner Bros, in Nashville in 1991. “She had her own ideas from the very beginning about how she wanted to do it.”

Last fall’s CD title track “Breathe,” Hill’s first single to hit No. 1 on both country and pop charts, has pushed her global CD sales past 15 million. With no new music from Shania Twain since 1997 and with slumping country sales, Hill has filled a crossover void. This year alone she has performed on VH1 Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross, sung the national anthem at the Super Bowl and filled in last-minute for a spaced-out Whitney Houston at the Academy Awards ceremony. “She pulled it off flawlessly with two rehearsals,” says Burt Bacharach, who arranged the show’s music. “She’s the real thing. She’s just totally musical. She ain’t bad-looking either.”

Hill says fellow diva Twain has played a part in her surging success. “I’ve always defended Shania,” she says. “She not only opened doors; she knocked several down.”

Hill is now stepping right on through. She has multimillion-dollar pitch deals with Pepsi, Alltel (a telecommunications firm sponsoring her tour) and Cover Girl, plus a pair of network specials in the works and eight Country Music Association nominations for Breathe. Hill is soaring so high that manager Gary Borman says her music accounts for only 20 to 25 percent of her revenue.

Backstage, as she, McGraw, 33, and the girls relax before showtime—Mom does a set, then Dad, then a half dozen duets to close—they seem every bit the doting partners and parents intent on keeping their family intact in the midst of what Hills calls “organized chaos.” They travel on the tour bus with bunks for Gracie and a full-time nanny. The custom-built bus leased for the tour includes a bedroom with a double bed for the headliners and a small bed for Maggie. “I’m a mother and a wife and just so happen to be an entertainer living out my lifelong dream,” says Hill. “It’s a constant job running here, there, picking up this and that, changing, feeding and trying to entertain. This hurricane can be exhausting.”

But it’s also a storm fueled by creative energy. In a country music first, Hill and McGraw are up against each other for the coveted Entertainer of the Year award at the CMAs on Oct. 4. In this win-win contest, Hill knows that what counts against her is an iconoclastic, Vogue-worthy appearance that has angered some traditionalists in Nashville, 20 minutes to the south of which she and Tim have a six-bedroom house. “Do you want to sell or do you not want to sell, period?” she demands, venting her annoyance with those Nashville detractors. “Whether we want to believe it or not, this is a business and I’m a businesswoman. I’ll probably be crucified because my music has crossed over. I’ve always done things differently. I’ve just gotten better and more confident at it.”

McGraw and the girls escort Hill to the ramp leading to the stage. Some 20,000 fans scream for her. McGraw pulls her near, kisses her tenderly and lets her go. Unwilling to be apart more than three days at a time, they assure their inseparability with the joint tour. “They’re the most in-love couple I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Mica Roberts. “If that’s not the real deal, I give up.”

Hill knows that won’t keep the rumor mill silent, as she launches into a litany of sniping gossip: “I’ve had an affair with my makeup artist, a female; an affair with my hairstylist; my marriage is on the rocks; Maggie is not Tim’s child. The naysayers. I don’t need their approval. I have too much going on. If that’s their entertainment, fine.”

Like most young mothers, Hill herself is more concerned with keeping the kids entertained. She and McGraw have created a city-to-city cocoon of continuity for Gracie and Maggie. And with shows often going on well past 11 p.m., there is no sleeping in. “It’s like clockwork,” says Hill. “Maggie wakes up every single morning at 5:00 Central. We’re all trying to wear her out and get her really tired.” Wherever the tour stops, the girls’ backstage playroom is set up identically—Play-Doh, books, stuffed monkeys, a tea set, slide, tunnel.

Still, touring with her family, even with help, is exhausting. “Gracie was potty-trained on tour,” she says. “Maggie’s just starting.” And while Hill is fastidious, she claims her husband remains “forgetful.” That’s why she packs for the kids and McGraw is on his own. “Everything has to be in a certain place for me,” Hill says. “I gotta be able to go right to the suitcase and know exactly where something is instead of digging around. Tim’s a total guy that way. He’s lost all kinda things. A favorite hat, favorite pants, a camera.” McGraw, relaxing on his couch, offers no argument. “She’s way more type A,” he says. “I’m a lot more laid-back and don’t run a tight ship.” Fortunately, after four years neither has misplaced the spark. Their vehicle has even been named the Love Bus. “A lot goes on in that bus,” says Hill with a sheepish grin. “We have a good time. We can establish a romantic ambience in a bathroom.”

When Hill and McGraw first got to know each other, she was the opening act on their aptly named 1996 Spontaneous Combustion tour. He had recently broken off an engagement to Kristine Donahue, and she was engaged to record producer Scott Hendricks, who had cut Hill’s first two albums. One night after a show, McGraw invited her into his dressing room. “I couldn’t stand it anymore,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell. I thought she was way out of my league.” If he only knew. “It was definitely cat and mouse, very high school,” says Hill. “My singers are going, ‘He’s walking in the hall, go go go.’ ” When she entered, McGraw embraced her and, he says, “planted a big old kiss on her. It wasn’t a huge lip lock.” Recalls Hill: “I was shocked, but it was nice.” Says McGraw: “Things started snowballing from there.”

Hill still had to free herself from Hendricks. “It obviously wasn’t a rock-solid situation or it wouldn’t have ended,” she says. “There wouldn’t have been someone else who could walk into my life. Tim is not the reason I left. If someone is going to judge my character because I was engaged to somebody and then I left him for somebody else—’Oh, okay, now she’s a slut and a bad person’—I can’t control that. But I wasn’t about to let Tim slip through my hands. And I had more self-worth and self-respect to not stay in a situation just because someone else thinks I should. I have to be happy too.”

Audrey Faith Perry developed the habit of happiness in the tiny town of Star, Miss., where she was raised by her adoptive parents, factory worker Ted, now 70, and his bank teller wife Edna, 64. (Now retired, the Perrys also have two older sons, Wesley and Steve.) “They were strong,” says Hill proudly, “the hardest-working people I’ve ever known. Mom financially stretched a dollar into 10. My parents’ combined salary when I left home at 18 was probably $25,000, raising three kids and paying bills. That’s impressive.” Even more astonishing is the fact that her father, one of 13 children, who left school in the fourth grade, managed to create this stable home life despite never learning to read. As a tribute to Ted, Hill founded the Faith Hill Family Literacy Project, which encourages reading with its book drives, in 1996.

Inspired by Aretha Franklin, Hill, while still in grade school, belonged to a choir that sang in local Baptist and Pentecostal churches. As childhood friend Gaye Knight recalls, “Faith was very spiritual. When she sang a cappella, she could bring the roof down.” By junior high she was tall and skinny with braces. Knight describes the young singer as “brutally hard on herself. She was always paranoid about her body, about being lanky and tall with not very big breasts and long arms.” Says the now 5’9″ Faith: “I wanted to be 5’5″.” But she flourished and became her school’s golden girl—cheerleader, junior class president, basketball star. “Faith never did anything halfway,” says another lifelong friend, Kathy Jones. “In cheer-leading she didn’t just chant, she screamed.”

Behind the good-girl facade, Faith also had a thrill-seeking, rebellious streak—”rolling” neighbors’ yards with toilet paper, speeding through railroad crossings in her car. “I was fearless,” she says. “I enjoyed doing crazy, daredevil things.” Says Knight: “I was afraid to get in trouble, but Faith would say, ‘You got to live a little.’ ”

Perhaps the boldest stunt Hill ever pulled was moving to Nashville at age 18 after a semester at Hines Community College in Raymond, Miss. She worked as a receptionist at singer Gary Morris’s music publishing company before landing a job with her idol Reba McEntire, packaging fan club merchandise. “Faith,” says Reba, “was a bright, spunky, feisty girl—real sweet and open, but a little mischievous. She reminded me a lot of myself. When she got nervous or a little flustered, her neck would break out in a rash.” On July 23, 1988, 20-year-old Faith Perry married music publishing executive Daniel Hill, after 15 months of dating. The marriage ended in divorce in early 1994. “I was young. I just jumped in the fire way too soon,” says Hill.

According to Daniel Hill, there was a deeper problem impacting the breakup. Around the time she was having doubts about her marriage, Faith, after three years, succeeded in tracking down her birth mother. By then, in 1993, she was emerging as one of country’s hottest stars. “That search consumed much of her energy,” says Daniel Hill, now 41. “Meeting her birth mother was the most profound life-altering experience for her. After that, her world turned upside down. I was part of her old world, and she had to let that world go. But there is no bitterness. I’m proud of her success.”

So is her birth mother, a tall blonde lookalike. “The first time I met her I just stared at her,” Hill told PEOPLE last year. “I’d never seen anybody that looked anything like me. It was the awe of seeing someone you came from. It fills something.” Hill, who refuses to mention her birth mother by name to protect her privacy, says the two still “see each other on occasion.”

McGraw grew up in Start, La., and was 11 when he learned that his biological father was not Horace Smith, the man raising him with his mother, Betty Trimble, but onetime New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Tug McGraw, with whom Tim’s mother had had a brief affair in 1966. He says he talks “all the time” with his father, who lives in Philadelphia. “Tug was hanging out backstage in Atlanta, trying to keep himself out of trouble,” says Tim. “He doesn’t mean to be wild—he just is.”

After the three-hour concert ends in Anaheim, Hill and McGraw rush offstage and are soon rolling on to San Diego for the next show. It has, says Hill, all turned out pretty much as planned—so far. “I once told my history teacher that I was going to be a country star,” she says. “And that this is the kind of show I dreamed about. Now that I’m in the midst of it, I want to do even more. I want it to get even bigger.” Of course, Hill admits, “I’m a dreamer.” But one who has seen many dreams come true. And with McGraw by her side, she adds, “we have endless possibilities.”

Beverly Keel in Nashville, Zelie Pollon in Star, Mary Green in Boise and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles