By Jeremy Helligar
July 12, 1999 12:00 PM

Country singer Faith Hill still cringes when she recalls a gig she had at a “tobacco spit” in Raleigh, Miss., when she was 16. The goal of the contest was to aim for the spittoon, which the participants did with varying degrees of success. “It was really, really gross,” says Hill, before a recent show in Boise, Idaho. “They cleaned the stage off with towels, and then I went on. I remember standing up there going, ‘Oh, God, what is this?’ But I was still grateful to be there. It was another opportunity to perform.”

There’s less spit and far more polish in her life these days. In April, Hill shared the stage with Cher, Tina Turner, Elton John and Brandy at the VH1 Divas Live ’99 concert. And this fall, Cover Girl will feature her new print ads with Brandy and model Niki Taylor. Meanwhile, Hill’s third album, Faith, released last year, has sold more than 3 million copies and spawned four hits, including the pop smash “This Kiss.” On the strength of that platinum single, Hill, 31, ruled the May 5 Academy of Country Music Awards, nabbing five trophies, among them Top Female Vocalist.

Still, Hill points to her marriage to fellow country star Tim McGraw as her greatest accomplishment. The couple fell for each other on the prophetically titled Spontaneous Combustion tour in the spring of 1996 and married later that year. “I saw that we had some of the same goals in life,” says Hill. “Our careers were important, but we wanted a family. We wanted that stability.” They found it with each other. “A conversation we had in a Jeep in Pennsylvania is one of my favorite memories,” says McGraw, 32. “It was a conversation about our future. That was the point where we realized we wanted to be together for the rest of our lives.”

So much so that the pair have made a vow never to spend more than three days apart. “Putting our schedules together is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube,” says Hill, whose 36-city U.S. tour will keep her on the road through July. “When one is on one coast and the other’s on the other one, and there’s only two flights a day and you’ve got to go through Timbuktu to get there, it gets very difficult.” Especially with two children tagging along. But Hill never leaves the couple’s six-bedroom Nashville home without their daughters Gracie, 2, and Maggie, 11 months. “We sing all the time,” says Hill, who has a full-time nanny to help out. “We sing the Barney song, all the nursery rhymes you can imagine, country music songs, Rod Stewart. Gracie is into repeating everything right now. You can sing anything to her and the next day she’ll be repeating it.”

Parenthood only makes the McGraw-Hill union stronger. “I love my wife more than anything in the world,” says McGraw. “But, boy, when she had our babies, it quadrupled. There’s just something about the connection.” Not that they always connect. “There are things that irritate him about me and vice versa,” says Hill. “I’m not saying we’re some stupid power couple that never has problems. But we’re best friends, and we’re in this together.”

Family has always been Hill’s highest priority. As an infant, the Star, Miss., native was adopted by factory worker Pat Perry, now 69, and his wife, Edna, now 65 and a retired bank employee. Though hardworking Pat successfully provided for his family, he had quit school after fourth grade and had not learned to read. “When I became an adult, I realized this world that he had never been introduced to,” says Hill. “I never knew how he got along without knowing how to read. He’s a very intelligent man. I guess he recognizes things easily and has a good memory.” Her father’s plight prompted Hill to establish the Faith Hill Family Literacy Project, which creates awareness of illiteracy in America; she also urges her fans to donate books at her concert venues.

Hill remains very close to her parents and two older brothers, but in 1990 she embarked on a three-year search to find her birth parents. “The first time I met my biological mother, I just stared at her,” she recalls. “I’d never seen anybody who looked anything like me. It was the awe of seeing someone that you actually came from. It fills something.” Today she still talks to her biological parents but for privacy reasons will not divulge their names.

Since her adoptive family wasn’t musically inclined, Hill discovered music on her own. “My mom used to tell me that I’ve been singing since I was 3,” she says. At 10, Faith made her public performing debut, at a women’s club luncheon, and about three years later taught herself to play guitar. After graduating from McLaurin Attendance Center in 1986, she spent a semester at Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Miss., before heading for Nashville.

There, Faith soon made her mark—though not with music. She supported herself by selling T-shirts at the town’s annual Fan Fair, working as a receptionist at a publishing company and packaging merchandise for Reba McEntire’s company. “She was a very outstanding young lady because she was so bubbly and full of life,” says McEntire. “That’s the way it was, even in the fan-club days, when she was back there stuffing envelopes.” While toiling in Nashville, Hill wed songwriter Dan Hill, a topic that still makes her bristle. “I was married when I was 20, and I’m 31 now,” she snaps. “It only lasted four years. We were very young, and it just didn’t work out.”

In 1989, Hill auditioned for a spot as one of McEntire’s backup singers but lost out to Paula Kaye Evans, who was later killed in the 1991 plane crash that claimed most of McEntire’s touring band. Hill eventually found a job singing backup for Nashville songwriter Gary Burr, and one night in 1992 while performing with him in a local club, she was spotted by an executive at Warner Bros. Records. The next year, her debut CD, Take Me as I Am, was released and eventually went triple platinum.

But mention success, and Hill quickly returns to her favorite topic: Tim and the kids. “Having been adopted,” she says, “I really have a strong sense—a necessity almost—for stability. A foundation where my family is concerned. [Success] would be meaningless without anyone to share it with. Family will be there after everything’s gone and I’m too old or tired to do this anymore.”

Jeremy Helligar

Mary Green in Boise