July 17, 2006 12:00 PM

Faith Hill gets mean when she’s hungry. At least that’s what her husband says. And at 3 p.m. on June 16 in Philadelphia—an hour after lunch and several more before she’ll sneak in a ham sandwich below stage while he performs his solo part on their Soul2Soul II tour—Hill is perhaps more in the mood for sweet somethings than sweet nothings. Still, her guy is trying; in between sniffling from a cold he has had for weeks, he sits near the stage intertwining his legs in hers and kissing her forehead. “Y’know, baby,” he murmurs, “if you loved me, you’d get a tattoo with my name….”

“No way!” retorts Hill.

“But, baby, look at my tattoo!” implores McGraw, pointing out the “Faith” etched on his upper right arm. “That shows how much I love you….”

“Awww,” relents Hill, crawling onto his lap. “That’s so sweet. I’ll get a tattoo and we’ll be so much in love!” Alas, her put-on syrupy Southern drawl drips a little too much sugar, and her cowboy knows when to throw in his hat. “Oh well,” he says with a laugh. “I guess if this don’t work out, I can get it filled in with a cross or somethin’….”

Hold the needles. “This” is working out just fine for the couple who not only sing but speak in duet, finishing each other’s sentences in harmony in an interview with PEOPLE a few hours before their show in Philadelphia, the 22nd stop in their 56-city tour. After a decade together—they began dating while teamed up on the 1996 Spontaneous Combustion tour and wed the same year—they now boast three kids (Gracie, 9, Maggie, 7, and Audrey, 4) and between them, 14 multiplatinum CDs, 35 hit singles and 6 Grammys. The two work like a finely tuned instrument. “He’s the big dreamer,” says Hill, 38. “Then she has to do all the details, come in and clean up my mess,” says McGraw, 39. To which Hill adds, “With a lot of love.”

They are almost always touching each other (“You’re one hot mama,” gushes McGraw as he picks imaginary lint off her knee) and playfully bickering. (“She’s a neat freak,” moans McGraw. Counters Hill: “Why can’t he pick his clothes up?”) But it is all in fun, like the sparring they will do onstage during Soul2Soul II for a million fans. “Over a million,” marvels Hill. “Do we still get excited by something like that? Oh, gosh, yeah.”

The tour, their second as a couple, took two years to plan, in part because as the parents of three, “you run around like crazy,” says Hill. Both took time to try acting too. Hill, whose last album, Fireflies, has sold more than two million copies, spent five months filming The Stepford Wives in 2003. And McGraw had a small part in 2004’s Friday Night Lights. He steps into new territory twice in the family drama Flicka (due in October). He has his first starring role as a ranch dad trying to find a bigger world for his daughter, and after 17 years in the business, he recorded for the first time a song he cowrote, a tune for the soundtrack called “My Little Girl.” In the past he has stuck to performing, “because my songwriting sucks. But it’s got to the point now that I just wanted to say something,” he explains.

Singing about his daughters is only the beginning of his—and Hill’s—desire to be heard. The native Southerners share a devotion to their community that kicked into high gear after Hurricane Katrina hit last year, which is a major focus for their recently launched Neighbor’s Keeper Foundation (see box). In addition, McGraw has talked of entering politics. “Public service is a pretty high calling,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a bunch of lawyers from Harvard. If I felt like I could do some good, if I felt I had the brains and maturity someday, then it’s something I would consider—after my kids were grown.”

Truth be told, the idea of the girls growing older has Hill a bit worried. Already she is looking for self-help books about dads and teenage daughters. “He’s going to be so strict,” she says. “He means good. But you don’t want him going so far it’s unrealistic.” Especially regarding boys. Predicts Hill: “I can see him saying, ‘He’s sitting too close to her! Go do something about it! Go tell him!’ He’ll send me to go do it.”

If nothing else, Hill and McGraw are hands-on parents. Nearly five years have passed since they got the scare of their lives when Audrey was born eight weeks early, her lungs undeveloped, weighing only 3 lbs. 11 oz. She was whisked into neonatal intensive care, and her parents could not even hold her for a few days. Hill called the separation “the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.” Today Audrey is “the feistiest one of them all,” says Hill, adding with a laugh, “She’s still attached to my umbilical cord. She senses me, smells me, and there’s no one that can pull her off me.”

Except perhaps, her dad. From their home outside Nashville, McGraw takes turns with Hill driving the girls to school and Maggie to dance classes. He helps coach Gracie’s school basketball team, and both parents are regulars at her games. McGraw has garbage duty, though he admits, “everybody else has more chores than me.” Indeed, Hill expects her daughters to “be responsible for their own things. There’s nothing better than washing your clothes and cooking your own food.” Hill tells her girls to “clean your plates; don’t waste,” and turn out the lights: “When I was growing up, if you left a room, that light should be turned off. Period.” (“If Faith’s mom comes to our house,” McGraw says, chuckling, “the first thing she says is, ‘I wouldn’t want to pay the light bill!'”) As for her husband’s habit of letting dirty clothes fall where they may, “We gotta whip you into shape,” she tells him. “If you don’t pick up your clothes, they’re not going to pick up their clothes either.”

“That’s not necessarily true,” McGraw counters. “Guys are different.”

“Then you need to teach them that’s what kind of man they need,” says Hill.

“Nah,” he says, “I need to teach them, ‘See? That’s the difference between guys and girls!'”

Venus and Mars will have plenty of time to hash out life lessons as the family covers some 20,000 miles in their 45-ft. bus. Like the progression on stage—opening duet, 13 songs for her, two more duets, 11 songs for him (time for her ham sandwich), and four final duets—free time for the kids is carefully planned. In Philadelphia the family visited the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross’s house. At their next stop in Hershey, Pa., Mom took the girls on roller-coasters and water rides at Hershey-park while Dad napped. “She takes the morning,” he explains. And in Hershey, the afternoon too. By about 2:30 p.m., Hill was getting tense. “The kids are going, ‘We haven’t done this or this or this, Mom. You promised….’ And in my head I’m going, ‘Okay, by now I’m usually getting ready for the show.’ I want to do everything,” she says. Still, “Days like this can’t exist every day.”

Not surprisingly, both parents value some time to themselves (two nannies help with the girls). “Sure, we need alone time,” says Hill. Says McGraw: “But we get that. We have separate dressing rooms because she’s got 36 girls running around doing hair and makeup.” (“Thirty-six?!” Hill interjects with mock horror.) He adds, “I like to go to my room and take another nap or watch Bonanza.”

“You know what?” Hill says, “My dream is to one day walk in your shoes, and you walk in mine.”

“I can’t help it. I get ready in 10 minutes. I’m a guy,” insists McGraw.

“We need a day where we switch. …” Hill begins. McGraw finishes her thought: “Yeah, like Freaky Friday.”

One activity that crosses gender lines is working out. They travel with a specially equipped trailer. “I do Pilates,” says Hill. “He has a weight workout. It’s basically scheduled within the day.”

“Although I haven’t done much,” he adds, “since you tried to kill me!”

“Right,” she agrees.

Right? About two weeks earlier, Hill explains, the family spent a few days off at their place in the Bahamas, and she was driving a boat that was pulling McGraw, holding an innertube, up into the air—”like four stories high,” she says. Their account of the accident:

McGraw: “She was going way too fast.”

Hill: “You should never have gotten on it! It had the skull with the bones across the face. Not a good sign.”

McGraw: “I had a pretty hard crash. I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.”

Hill: “What did that sign say? ‘Don’t go higher than you are afraid to fall.'”

Once again, he admits defeat. As he said joking earlier, “I might as well own up to whatever it is or was—make it my fault, because it always is anyway.”

Little wonder that after many a concert, while his wife hunkers down in the bus to sleep, McGraw says he goes “up front with the bus driver [to] watch the road and listen to music. …”

“…And talk guy talk,” says Hill.

“Well,” says McGraw, “everything else behind that [bus] door is estrogen!” Not that he minds, as evidenced by the loving look—and kiss—he gives his wife during the finale of each concert, sitting across from her strumming his guitar as they sing their duet “I Need You.” “It’s completely calm and quiet,” she says. “He catches his breath and I catch my breath and we’re just staring at each other…” It’s the only moment, she admits, when she is sure not to “drift away” from her role as sexy star-wife to stressed-out mom: “I’ll look out in the crowd and see a kid and think, ‘Oh, I forgot to put the clothes out for the girls for bed!'” Okay, so she’s not always a romantic—and certainly never a rock chick with tattoos. But she has forgiven her man his sins. “He’s a great daddy,” says Hill. “Who cares about picking clothes from off the floor?”

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