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This Thanksgiving, as places are set at their suburban Nashville table for the kith and kin of Faith Hill and husband Tim McGraw, Hill will be consulting her mother's time-tested recipes for gravy and corn bread in order to prepare "the one meal I do really, really well." Three daughters with ever-changing tastes, ages 11, 10, and 6, have each put in requests. "Gracie's fave is butter beans, Audrey's is green beans, Maggie's is peas. So I have to make all of those."
Or else. Last year the hit-maker, who had three consecutive albums debut at number one on both Billboard 200 and Billboard Country, ran out of time and blew off the pecan pie. "Maggie was devastated," Hill reports.
So here she is, on a morning in high August, already thinking about Thanksgiving menus, even though the apples for holiday pies still hang, heavy and ripe, on the trees lining the drive of the family's farm 45 minutes outside Nashville. Dressed in bright green running shorts, a T-shirt, and comfy Asics trainers -- "my usual casual," she says -- Hill looks far younger than her 41 years as she sits on her screened porch and muses about the domestic gridlock familiar to every working mom. In her case the juggling includes two high-profile careers, three sets of teacher conferences and sports schedules, family pets including dogs and horses, an imminent move to a new home being built closer to town, her just-released holiday album, Joy to the World, and a televised performance of the album's music on PBS's Soundstage, to air Thanksgiving weekend.
All morning long Hill has been making detailed entries in a black ruled notebook with columns headed "Tim," "Faith," and "The Girls." The book is her hedge against chaos. After a recent "totally relaxing" family vacation in Europe, including a week and a half on a chartered boat exploring remote fishing villages in Italy -- the couple's first summer off after their 2006 and 2007 Soul2Soul summer tours -- Hill is determined to get organized. "I've felt myself drowning in my day-to-day activities," she says. "I'm constantly chasing the ball, trying to catch up. I don't want to live like that anymore. It's too exhausting."
One step toward sanity? Scaling back somewhat on her career, including not touring during the school year. "My schedule now is completely based around the girls' schedules -- down to the parent meetings, field trips, sports schedules. The idea of not being able to be there for the girls if Tim and I both had to be away at the same time..." She thumps the black book with her palm. "I couldn't handle it."
Turning away from the spotlight is not a concept Hill could have imagined when she was the age of her eldest, Gracie. In tiny Star, Mississippi, life was always a bit too slow for Audrey Faith Perry. She was adopted soon after birth and raised with traditional Southern values by her bank teller mother and factory worker father. Her upbringing in Star was right out of the classic Grand Ole Opry playbook: very little money, lots of church and gospel, and endless persistence. She always wanted to shine.
At 18 she quit a local college and lit out for Nashville, where she took any job she could get, including selling T-shirts and working as a receptionist for a music company. She was married briefly to music executive Daniel Hill and finally got her break when one of the bosses in the office heard her sing along to the radio and suggested she do demo work. In 1993 the girl from Star cut her first single, "Wild One." She met McGraw three years later, when she was the opening act on his Spontaneous Combustion Tour.
The road to success was bumpier for McGraw, 41, who grew up poor and abused in another eyeblink town, Start, Louisiana, believing that Horace Smith was his real father. At 11 he found his birth certificate, which indicated that his biological father was baseball great Tug McGraw. His mother, a dancer when she met the famous pitcher, ultimately introduced her son to his dad, who at first denied paternity. Hill, too, with her parents' help, eventually met her birth mother (now deceased) as well as her brother, with whom she has a warm relationship.
Having had childhoods rocked by such emotional ambushes, the couple have made openness and straight talk a priority with their own and debates everything from the excesses of tabloid gossip to the moral implications of too much trash (the non-tabloid variety). "As much as we travel," says Hill, "there was just so much waste in our family, because we'd buy something we didn't use, or we'd buy too much food." She and Gracie -- a budding cook at 11 -- now grocery-shop together and talk about portion control and the dangers of impulse buying. A current family debate centers around whether Gracie should have a cell phone. So far Hill and McGraw have held firm to their "not yet" position. Says Hill, "I don't want to be a prude, the uncool parent, but I really don't feel she needs one right now." Similarly, the couple consider Gracie too young to have her own e-mail address. "Obviously, the girls' lives are a lot different from ours growing up," she says, "but we do have rules."
For inspiration she only has to look to the small-town values that still inform her parents' vibrant life in Star. "For them it's all about church and community," says Hill. "And they grow all their own vegetables and don't waste anything. My mom has had the same wooden spoons for 20 years. I've gone through three batches of wooden spoons."
Hill and McGraw believe those small-town values can work on a larger scale. Since 1994 McGraw has run a concert-meets-street-festival called Swampstock to benefit youth sports facilities, scholarships, and other causes in his hometown, Start. The girls and Hill have participated in this down-home event, along with boldface names like Martina McBride and NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Now Swampstock is part of the couple's larger umbrella charity, the Neighbor's Keeper Foundation, begun three years ago. "Tim and I both grew up in small communities, where it was always a neighbor who helped the person in need," says Hill. "That's where the name came from, and that's the goal."
For now the foundation is funding projects close to the couple's Gulf Coast origins, a decision reinforced by a trip the couple made immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit, to deliver food and supplies to the Red Cross in Gulfport, Mississippi. Neither was prepared for the misery and devastation they saw. "As we traveled down it just got worse and worse," Hill recalls. "To see the reports on the news is nothing like being there."
After sifting through hundreds of worthy requests, Hill and McGraw decided to support the Community Initiatives Foundation, a Baton Rouge organization started by Sister Judith Brun. The program, which serves the largest post-storm trailer city in Baton Rouge, uses art therapy to help children still traumatized by Katrina's destruction. "It's amazing what these kids draw, what they're thinking, what they're feeling," says Hill of images that include submerged houses and dead bodies floating in water. "They're so burdened by things that only adults should be burdened by." (The children's artwork can be seen at www.katrinaexhibit.org.)
As for the privileged McGraw daughters, teaching by example has proved the most effective way of encouraging them to count their blessings. After the Gulf Coast trip, Hill shared the photos with them. "We try to be very honest with our kids about what's really happening," she says. "They have a pretty good grasp on it."
Indeed, Hill notes, all three have a refreshingly blase attitude about their parents' celebrity. Recently, however, Gracie encountered -- on a school field trip, no less -- the glammed-up version of her mom enshrined in a glass case at the Country Music Hall of Fame, in downtown Nashville. The display features the spangled gold Versace dress and strappy pink snakeskin heels that Hill wore on VH1's Divas Live in 2000. "She saw the shoes and goes, 'Mom, I've never seen those before,'" Hill says, laughing. "'Can I have them?'"
Hill understands Gracie's shoe lust -- among her own prized possessions is a pair of signed patent-leather stilettos given to her by Tina Turner -- but the object she treasures most is hardly glamorous. Recently Edna Perry gave her daughter the bowl in which Perry mixed her signature corn-bread stuffing for 45 years. Hill will be using that sacred vessel on Thanksgiving Day when she makes her mother's stuffing. Perry, sadly, won't be there. Because of a stroke suffered a few years ago, she cannot travel to Nashville for the holiday. "It's hard," says Hill. "I do feel an urgency to be near her."
By Christmas Eve, as Hill's album is doubtless topping the charts and McGraw is whipping up his trademark spaghetti dinner, Edna Perry should be done making the peanut-butter balls her neighbors have come to expect. And Hill will rest easier knowing they'll be looking for her mom and dad to drop by. "Everyone in Star takes care of everyone else," she says. "Always. They're just good neighbors."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2008.