Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are hosting a meet-and-greet before their Friday-night concert at the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. As is the custom for touring artists, they make jovial chitchat with fans, many of whom have bought VIP packages; then everyone poses for a photo, which likely ends up as part of the family’s Christmas letter.
Hill, who hasn't toured in over 10 years, can be skittish with strangers, but when fans -- mostly couples -- enter the black-draped photo area, McGraw puts them at ease. “You look like trouble,” he chirps at one guy with a goatee, who hasn't been trouble in a few decades. To a woman who’s much slimmer than her man, he says, “You could have done a whole lot better than him.” The photographer snaps a photo, and the husband exits, delighted -- as does the wife, perhaps with a new idea in mind.
Toward the end of the 20-minute event, two parents urge their shy 9-year-old into the photo area. Hill squats down and exclaims, “Oh, you’re so cute!” McGraw kneels too, and the boy smiles anxiously. “You’re not that cute,” declares McGraw.
Snap. Another great photo.
With a combined 100 years of life on earth and nearly as many hits, Hill and McGraw are as familiar as relatives to country fans, their images and reputations well defined: mischievous but sensitive Uncle Tim and gorgeous, sensible Aunt Faith, who put her music career aside to raise their three daughters.
After 20 years of duets, they’ve released their first joint album, The Rest of Our Life, and launched the third iteration of their co-headlining Soul2Soul Tour, which continues well into 2018. Onstage, McGraw is deferential to Hill, if not worshipful. Offstage, he’s all that, but salty too.
“I don’t see myself as a performer, just as a singer,” says Hill. “But I feel more relaxed onstage now than in the past. To be onstage with one of the greatest performers in our generation --”
McGraw interrupts. “Who’s going to be here?”
Hill: No, Tim is really a master at --
Hill: Tim’s a master at his craft, and I wish he wasn't sitting here to hear me say this, because he can get a little cocky.
In his 20s, McGraw says, he found it easy to sleep on a tour bus, but not anymore. “This is another part of getting older, because we’re both over 50 now, and...”
It’s Hill’s turn to interrupt: “We’re 50. Not over 50. Let’s make that real clear.”
“No, we’re past 50. Fifty’s gone,” insists McGraw.
He doesn't sound sad about it.
McGraw and Hill were on parallel tracks in their lives even before they knew each other. He released his first album in April 1993; hers followed six months later. When they met for the first time, backstage at a Country Radio Seminar showcase for new artists at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville on March 5, 1994, he was with a girlfriend, and she was separated from her first husband.
“For me, there was an intense physical attraction. I guess my girlfriend saw it in my eyes,” admits McGraw. “She said, ‘I don’t want you around her.’”
It’s just before 2 p.m. and we’re all in Hill’s dressing room, which is decorated in soothing shades of taupe and cream. Both are eating a late lunch: salad from the backstage buffet. “All right, let’s tear into this salad,” says McGraw, with more enthusiasm than lettuce deserves.
By 1996, Hill was engaged to her record producer, and McGraw was popular enough to start his first major headlining tour. Innocently or not, he picked Hill as his opening act. The tour started in March. By May, they were sharing a duet and a not-brief kiss onstage. In October, they married. For her next album, Hill hired a new producer.
Aside from their careers, what bonded the pair so quickly, says Hill, were the unusual details of their raising. “Although our stories are very different, there was a missing link within our souls that we both related to.”
“I had a very dysfunctional childhood,” says McGraw. “So I wanted what I didn't have: a stable family.”
Until he was 11, McGraw thought a man named Horace Smith was his father. The two took long drives in his 18-wheel truck, hauling cottonseed, listening to 8-track cassettes of Merle Haggard and George Jones. “I remember sitting in countless truck stops, before the sun came up, listening to the jukebox. That was my education in country music.”
Then one day, he found his birth certificate in a drawer. Name of father: Samuel Timothy McGraw. Occupation of father: baseball player.
The summer before her senior year in high school, McGraw’s mother, Betty, had a fling with “Tug” McGraw, then an obscure minor-leaguer, and got pregnant. By the time Tim was born, Tug was a trail of dust. When she told him he had a son, Tug denied paternity -- and withheld child support. She married Smith, who said he wanted to take care of her, and had two kids with him. But Smith was a physically abusive drunk.
“My mom got the brunt of the abuse,” says McGraw. “I got abuse too, because I wasn't his. All he could see was somebody else’s kid -- not to mention a baseball player’s kid, and here he is, a truck driver in Louisiana. He was envious.”
After Tim found his birth certificate, Betty contacted Tug again, and he agreed to meet them in Houston during the baseball season. Tug was friendly but aloof, and didn't stay in touch with Tim.
The following year, Tim and his mom drove to Houston again, but “he wouldn't see us.” Tim was wearing a replica jersey with his dad’s name and number on it. “He was warming up in the bullpen. I kept yelling at him, but he wouldn't look at me. I didn't see him again until I was 18.
“I didn't think it bothered me that much. But the older I get, the more I think about it.”
Later, the two grew close, and Tim and Hill cared for Tug after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. When he died, in 2004, Tug, who had gone on to pitch for 19 years in the National League and won a World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, was living at the couple’s farm outside Nashville. Tim still wondered why his dad had ignored him for so long, but didn't feel it was fair to interrogate a dying man. “I was hoping he’d bring it up. That’s one of my biggest regrets, that we never had that conversation."
“I knew I had that instability and dysfunction in me, from the way I grew up,” says McGraw. “And when I met Faith, I knew I needed her in my life -- to keep me stable, solid and on track.”
Hill’s parents, Edna (a bank teller) and Ted (a factory worker), never hid the fact that they had adopted her, though they claimed her mother put her up for adoption because she’d had an affair with a married man, which wasn't true.
“I used to think there was some kind of conspiracy, that I must be the daughter of one of my aunts. And of course I used to dream I was Elvis’ daughter,” Hill says with a laugh. “I have a great family: salt of the earth, hardworking. But I’m a gypsy at heart. I had a spirit that was completely outside what my family was. I didn't know anyone I was related to, biologically, which gives you a sense of not knowing who you are.”
In her early 20s, after Hill moved from Star, Miss., to Nashville, she began to look for her birth family. She located her biological mother, a professional painter, and learned she had a full brother too. Knowing her mom was an artist helped Hill understand why she had felt like a misfit, but the two didn't become close. “I kept the relationship at bay,” she says. “They were just getting to know one another better,” adds McGraw, when White died in 2007. (Hill’s father died first, in a car accident.)
When Hill and McGraw began dating, they spent hours talking about how their relationship would never work. Marriages between artists, she notes dryly, “don’t have a good track record.” Nonetheless, they started a family right away.
In the late ’90s, Hill, with her torchy, grown-up voice, had the more successful career: “This Kiss,” “Breathe” and “The Way You Love Me” topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and crossed over to the pop charts. “While she was doing press, I hung out with the kids. I was just ‘Mr. Hill,’” recalls McGraw.
Around 2001, Hill’s crossover success faded, and her chart results regressed to the mean. McGraw, however, was in the midst of a winning streak: He placed 23 consecutive singles in the top 10 of the Hot Country Songs chart, including five No. 1s in a row. So McGraw went on tour, and Hill stayed home with the girls.
Hill: He’s a legit touring machine. Had the tables been turned...
McGraw: I would’ve stayed home.
Hill: That was the best choice for our family. I don’t regret it at all.
McGraw: That’s the only reason she married me, so she could have kids and stay home.
Hill: Wow. Did you really just say that? Are you kidding me?
McGraw: I’m kidding!
Hill: I don’t mean I sat home on my butt and ate bonbons.
McGraw doesn't have a classic country voice -- “There are people working at 7-Eleven who can sing circles around me,” he likes to say -- but he’s unmatched at picking highly emotional songs that also tell the story of his own maturation. Many of his early tracks were borderline novelties (“What Room Was the Holiday In,” “Refried Dreams”) until the 1995 hit “I Like It, I Love It,” about a guy who loses interest in his rowdy male friends and becomes happily domesticated.
Since then, while country has been dominated by songs about endless summer nights, McGraw has distinguished himself by picking the kind of tunes that soundtrack milestones in people’s lives: weddings, graduations, funerals. Two of his biggest smashes, “Live Like You Were Dying” and “Humble and Kind,” are about hard-earned wisdom. Earlier in 2017, he and Hill released “Speak to a Girl,” a remarkable ballad in which they instruct men to respect women and tell women to demand that respect. At a time when toxic masculinity stretches from the country charts to the White House, McGraw has challenged Nashville’s restrictive gender roles. Along the way, he has lost a few fans: “When did Tim become such a pansy?” one wrote earlier this year on a country music website.
Country stars, on average, are more liberal than their fans, and most keep their political opinions to themselves to avoid alienating anyone. Speaking less than two weeks after a man with an arsenal of legally purchased military-grade guns shot and killed 58 people at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas (but before the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting that killed 26), McGraw and Hill both make it clear: They support gun control.
“Look, I’m a bird hunter -- I love to wing-shoot,” says McGraw. “However, there is some common sense that’s necessary when it comes to gun control. They want to make it about the Second Amendment every time it’s brought up. It’s not about the Second Amendment.”
Hill adds, “In reference to the tragedy in Las Vegas, we knew a lot of people there. The doctors that [treated] the wounded, they saw wounds like you’d see in war. That’s not right. Military weapons should not be in the hands of civilians. It’s everyone’s responsibility, including the government and the National Rifle Association, to tell the truth. We all want a safe country.”
In 2008, McGraw -- who has a nice sideline in acting, including The Blind Side and the Friday Night Lights movie -- had a role in Four Christmases as Vince Vaughn’s doltish brother. When McGraw saw the film’s trailer with his daughters, they gasped at how bloated he had become and told him to lose weight.
A guy who by his own account lives in extremes, he had gone too far with booze and drugs, and ballooned to 215 pounds. Hill, trying to keep him stable and solid, gave him an ultimatum: Partying or having a family. Pick one, buddy.
McGraw stopped partying and gave up carbs and sugar, too. He lost 40 pounds and developed topographical-map abs. Lots of music stars hire personal trainers, but to maintain his 30-inch waist, McGraw tours with Roger Yuan, a martial arts expert who trained Daniel Craig for Skyfall and Henry Cavill for The Immortals. Afternoon workouts help him “sort of build into the character by the time we hit the stage,” he says.
Today, McGraw and Hill have invited me to join their 3:30 p.m. workout. Foolishly, I accept.
Inside one of the weight rooms at Capital One Arena, which is home to three pro sports teams, Yuan leads us through a training session that mixes yoga, martial arts and CrossFit; a one-hour whirlwind of burpees, Hindu pushups and other exhausting exertions. One involves rotating an iron plate 360 degrees over your head; Yuan grabs 45-pound plates for himself and McGraw, then sizes me up and hands me a 25-pound plate. I’m more relieved than insulted.
At precisely 4 p.m., Hill leaves to begin the hours-long process of becoming a stage-ready goddess. I resist the urge to join her.
At the end of the hour, after I have succeeded in not dying, McGraw claps me on the back and says I did well. I feel proud -- until he mentions it’s the third workout he and Yuan had done that day.
McGraw is comfortable in arenas, he told me earlier, because he was an athlete. He entered college on a baseball scholarship, but then pawned his high school ring to buy a guitar. Pretty soon he had dropped out and moved to Nashville. He sounded almost surprised that he’s now a headlining country singer, and his explanation of how it happened led to another episode of revealing marital banter.
McGraw: I didn't really teach myself to play guitar until my freshman summer of college. That’s when I started.
Hill: It was a way to get girls. That’s why he did it.
McGraw: It was a good way to get laid. That was the whole point.
Did it work?
“It worked pretty good!” He looks at Hill. “Sorry, Mama.”
Hill just shrugs. “I already knew,” she says patiently.
Two Soulmates, Three Tours, 260 Million Bucks
The first Soul2Soul outing -- though Hill had opened for McGraw’s Spontaneous Combustion Tour in 1996.
Grosses $47.8 million and sells nearly 969,000 tickets to over 65 shows, according to Billboard Boxscore.
Cover: Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.”
The Soul2Soul II Tour becomes the highest-grossing country tour of all time, earning over $141 million.
With three kids by this point, Hill says it’s “probably the last time for a really, really long time” that the couple will tour together.
Opener for select dates: noted McGraw fan Taylor Swift.
Soul2Soul: The World Tour kicked off in New Orleans in April and will end in Sacramento, Calif., in July 2018, after more than 100 shows.
Grossed $71.3 million and sold over 838,000 tickets (for shows through Oct. 7).
Watch Tim McGraw and Faith Hill play a couple's version of 'First Best Last Worst,' where they recall dancing together for the first time in the '90s and talk about the last stage mishap they had (hint: ripped pants):
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of Billboard.