By Jeremy Helligar
April 27, 1998 12:00 PM

When Tim McGraw teamed up with fellow country-music star Faith Hill for 1996’s Spontaneous Combustion tour, sparks flew. But no one, least of all Hill, anticipated an offstage marriage proposal in Montana. “My dressing room was a trailer house,” says McGraw. “I asked her to marry me right there. She said, ‘I can’t believe you’re asking me to marry you in a trailer house,’ and I said, ‘Well, we’re country singers, what do you expect?’ ” Hill accepted by scribbling “I’m going to be your wife. Yes, F.” on a mirror in the singer’s trailer while he was performing onstage.

Being married to one of country music’s most alluring women isn’t the only reason McGraw, 30, has to smile these days. Everywhere, his latest collection of tender ballads and roots-rocking romps, has spawned three No. 1 country hits and sold 2 million copies since its release last June. And at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards (April 22 on CBS, 8-11 p.m. ET), McGraw is up for no fewer than nine nominations, including Entertainer of the Year and Album of the Year. “I can’t imagine it getting any better,” he says. “Aside from being able to do something I love for a living, I’ve got the best wife in the world.”

Nashville hasn’t seen a double bill this harmonious in years. “They’re a cute couple,” says Ralph Emery, host of TNN’s Ralph Emery on the Record. “People are now viewing them as they used to view George Jones and Tammy Wynette, as ‘Mr. and Mrs. Country Music’ ” Seven months after their October 1996 wedding, their daughter, Gracie, was born, and the couple are expecting a second child in August. They’ve managed to maintain a honeymoon glow by putting family first. Marriage and fatherhood, McGraw says, “change your focus. Now everything I have is for them.” For all their togetherness, however, the two are careful to keep their careers separate. They refuse, for instance, to participate in stories that focus on them as a couple.

McGraw first met Hill at a radio seminar in 1994, when both were up-and-coming Nashville hitmakers, but the encounter was as brief as it was uneventful. For him, their second meeting at a 1995 outdoor festival in Eau Claire, Wis., was more decisive. “I thought she was gorgeous,” says McGraw, “but out of my league.” Their romance didn’t flourish until the 1996 tour, when they began spending offstage time together, cooking and going to the movies. Still, the once-divorced Hill (she was married for 5½ years to song publisher Dan Hill) wasn’t sold on a trip to the altar with McGraw until she witnessed an encounter between him and a young fan. “I saw this incredibly fatherly instinct that he had,” says Hill, 30. “He had this real love for children. I thought, ‘That man has got to be the father of my children.’ ”

McGraw’s own father didn’t figure much in his early upbringing in Start, La. His mother, Betty Trimble, was a 19-year-old high school dropout in 1967, the year Tim was born as the result of a onetime fling with Tim’s father, Tug McGraw, a then minor-league pitcher who went on to play for the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. Tim was only 7 months old when Betty married truck driver Horace Smith. Though the marriage ended in divorce eight years later, Tim continued to consider Smith his father until age 11, when, while looking for an old picture, he came across his birth certificate, which named Tug McGraw as his dad. “The funny thing,” says Betty, 50, “was that he did have his father’s baseball cards hanging on the wall before he knew it was his father.” Says Tim: “It was like any kid would be. At first, it’s wow, your dad’s a pro baseball player. Then, of course, that wears off.”

The following year, Betty arranged for Tim to meet Tug when the Phillies came to Houston to play the Astros, but the pitcher remained a long-distance hero. Secure in his relationship with his mother and grandparents, Tim didn’t push for a closer tie, and neither did Tug. Then, in Tim’s senior year of high school, they bonded after another meeting. Today the two men have no regrets. “When our relationship began,” says Tug, 53, “we decided it was a look-forward kind of relationship and we’d move on, not look back.”

After graduating as class salutatorian from Monroe Christian High School in 1985, McGraw turned down several basketball and baseball scholarships, enrolling instead in Northeast Louisiana University, where he majored in happy hour. “I did get into the party scene just a little bit too much and that’s probably what turned me toward music,” he says. “I knew I had to do something that didn’t require much of an education.”

During his first summer in college, McGraw got hooked on Country Music Television and taught himself to play a $20 guitar he bought at a pawnshop; he also studied the technique of musicians who appeared on the cable channel. Taken with honky-tonk, he left school in 1989 and headed to Nashville, where he and the band he eventually formed became regulars on the local circuit. Dragging their equipment around in an old rented trailer attached to their van, they fattened their performing booty by buying cheap silk roses from department stores and selling them at the dives they played in. “The guys would buy them for their girlfriends,” Tug recalls. “Tim would perform, and the girls would throw them onstage. Then the band would collect them and sell them at the next bar.”

These days, McGraw doesn’t have to be quite so frugal. In 1991, after impressing a label representative he met through a friend of Tug’s, he signed with Curb Records. His debut album tanked the following year, but he topped the country-music heap with his 5 million-selling 1994 follow-up, Not a Moment Too Soon, which included the hit “Indian Outlaw.” Since then, the awards and platinum records have been stacking up in the four-bedroom colonial home in Brentwood, Tenn., that he shares with Hill and Gracie; the cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles are piling up as well. But for McGraw, speed doesn’t compare to the thrill he gets just lying in bed after his wife and daughter have fallen asleep beside him late at night. “I flip through the channels and keep looking over at them sleeping,” he says. “They’re just like cuddled up right next to each other. It’s my favorite time of the day.”

Jeremy Helligar

Lorna Grisby in Brentwood