Country Strong: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw
By Jewly Hight
Nearly two decades ago, Faith Hill inadvertently foretold her future with her chipper, two-stepping country hit “Let’s Go to Vegas.” Sure, it was technically a song about eloping to a neon wedding chapel, which definitely wasn’t how she and Tim McGraw tied the knot the year after the single scaled the charts. But the music video captured her performing in a retro, charmingly kitschy Las Vegas, doing the sing-and-shimmy atop a canary-yellow pedestal, flanked by feathered fan dancers, an Elvis impersonator, and a magician sawing a woman in half.
“The thing that I remember most about that video,” says the country-pop diva with a laugh, “was the boots that I wore. Those were the most uncomfortable boots I had ever worn in my life. I couldn’t even walk off set.”
Those stiletto-heeled instruments of torture are long gone, but now that Hill and McGraw are staging their sleekly contemporary country show Soul2Soul at the Venetian Theatre, they’ve revived “Let’s Go to Vegas” as a deliciously cheeky opening number.
Says Hill, “You could never have convinced me that I would be singing that song 20 years from the time that I recorded it.”
“Nor could you convince me that I’d be singing it with her,” McGraw chimes in.
“But I have to say,” adds Hill, “it was Tim’s idea, and the producer of the show, Robert Deaton. I was kicking and screaming for many weeks, protesting and saying, ‘No way. Don’t even talk about it. I’m not even interested in doing that.’ But once we were in rehearsal, and certainly once the audience was in the room, it became one of the most fun parts of the show.”
McGraw and Hill celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary the day before our interview. They’re the rare pair of modern country superstars who’ve sustained both a marriage and megawatt careers, raising three daughters together and amassing a staggering number of Top 10 country hits between them—well over 60, counting those he scored this year—while Hill enjoys blockbuster pop crossover success and McGraw also makes acclaimed turns on the big screen. Country music just doesn’t have a template for a hot-ticket couple with this sort of staying power. So these two are making it up as they go.
Says McGraw, “It’s not like, ‘Well, now we’ve gotten to a point in our career where we’re not touring anymore and we’re not gonna make records and we’re not gonna do this or that, so we’re gonna go to Vegas and play.’ Everything that we want to do in our careers is available. So we can pick and choose and do the things that we want to do, and line ’em up in a way that works for our lives.”
The duo’s initial 10-weekend run of Soul2Soul worked so well for their lives that they decided to return to Venetian for an encore, with 10 more weekends on the calendar, ending in April.
Hill emphasizes what a big deal it is to coax that sort of commitment out of performer parents with plenty else on their plates: “We’ve not worked together since we went on our last tour in, I guess, 2007, the big Soul2Soul tour. Our kids were much younger then, and it was easier to kind of load ’em up and bring the entire circus on the road. So when the Venetian approached us with the possibility of doing a few weekends for them, one of the first things that they offered was that they would work within our schedule parameters.
“The Venetian was so brilliant in how they accommodated us,” she continues, “in such a way that it was one of the greatest experiences that we have ever had playing live together. I mean, this beautiful 1,800-seat theater, working around our children’s sports schedules and proms and all this kind of stuff that goes on once you get kids in high school, not to mention artistically. We were able to bring basically the design of a stadium-style show and put it into a theater.”
That’s not to say that McGraw and Hill simply transported the same old show to a new venue. The separate sets and backing bands of their stadium tours have given way to a collaborative 90-minute performance, accompanied by a crack eight-piece group.
“The big difference,” says McGraw, “is in between songs and when you’re talking to the audience. You can talk to everybody, and in a lot of cases you can hear people [respond]. And that’s when it becomes fun and it becomes sort of…”
“Very spontaneous,” says Hill.
“And it also becomes a relationship in a different way than it is in a big arena,” adds McGraw. “In this theater, you really feel like you get to know the audience in a different way. And I feel like they get to know you in a different way.”
You get a taste of the couple’s affectionate ribbing over the phone, but the banter really takes off when they sit down for an onstage chat session midway through Soul2Soul. It’s not unusual for them to veer from joking about household gender dynamics to being playfully suggestive, drawing delighted laughter and whistles from the audience.
“There’s certainly things that we always sorta know we’re gonna talk about,” McGraw says. “But you never know where it’s gonna go. The biggest fear is that it’s gonna stall somewhere, or there’s a moment that’s awkward, when you say something that’s not funny. But what we found out is, the more organic we are, the more we’re just having fun or just sort of…”
He pauses, and Hill supplies the phrase he’s searching for: “Being in the moment.”
After an hour and a half of selections from the singers’ expansive repertoires—some iconic, others unexpected, some sung in harmony, others solo—you’d almost expect them to end on a climactic blowout number. Instead they sit down at a lone microphone, lean in until their thighs touch and their faces are inches apart, and sing the most nakedly emotional duet they’ve ever recorded, “I Need You.”
“Being exposed like that in a song relationship-wise, especially for us and our 17 years together and our family, that just puts an exclamation mark on what the evening’s all about, really,” says McGraw. “There’s music and there’s us performing together and there’s us performing each other’s songs and all those sorts of things. But at the end of the day, the show, Soul2Soul, is about us and our relationship. And I think that that song sort of encapsulates all of that in one moment.”
In the grand tradition of male-female country duos like Johnny and June and George and Tammy, Tim and Faith know how to draw on their chemistry, their heat, and their deep-seated feelings toward each other, and their fans thrill at being let in on it.
No teenager wants to sit through her parents making eyes at each other, so it’s no wonder that Hill and McGraw’s daughters were less than eager to join the theater audience.
“Well, our oldest daughter saw one show,” Hill says with a laugh, “and only because a friend of hers came. I think she left early. But our two youngest daughters, no, have actually not seen it, but they’ve accompanied us [to Vegas]. They loved being there and were sad when it ended last time. They’re kids, so they definitely find things to occupy [themselves]. They’ve seen most shows that are age-appropriate for them. Of course, they love Topshop.” “Yeah, anything to do with the mall and shopping they like,” McGraw adds.
“And they also enjoy just the behind-the-stage, you know, hanging out with the band,” says Hill. “And the dressing room. It’s fun for them. The Venetian took really great care of us, so they were a little bit spoiled.”
McGraw and Hill have been making trips to Vegas for the better part of two decades, bringing their top-flight tours to town and appearing at the Billboard Music Awards and the American Country Music Awards. So even though they’re usually, as she puts it, “flying in and out” for weekend engagements at Venetian, they’re no strangers to what the city has to offer its foodie visitors. Cut is a favorite dining spot at the hotel, and McGraw says his mother couldn’t wait to call and tell him that Buddy Valastro of Cake Boss fame was opening a new restaurant in town.
It should come as no surprise that country superstars who are part of the current wave of enduring acts launching residencies in Vegas in the wake of Celine Dion’s head-turning success can also appreciate the talent gathered in one place. Says Hill, “I think there’s an extraordinary performing scene [here] right now. I’ve seen Celine’s show. I missed the first one that she brought. I saw Shania’s.”
“And I am gonna make a point to see Def Leppard’s show,” says McGraw.
The look of their Soul2Soul set—a collaboration among husband and wife, producer Robert Deaton, and production designer Roy Bennett—is perfectly in step with the chic, contemporary Vegas aesthetic. You have to wonder whether certain elements, such as the gigantic lit dome, the circular spotlights dotting the stage, and the backdrop’s golden interlocking rings, are meant to symbolize the bonding of two souls—sort of like wedding rings. That interpretation elicits chuckles from McGraw and Hill.
“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” he says, playing along.
“We didn’t go that deep into it,” she explains.
“We thought it looked good,” he says.
“We thought it looked really good,” she reiterates, “and we wanted it to be incredibly modern.”
He continues, “We also wanted it to be really cool, like she said, cool and modern and classy, and not ever feel like it’s trying too hard.”
She tops off the list: “We wanted it to be timeless as well.”
The couple may say they’re simply describing the set’s visual impact, but it sounds for all the world like they’re also describing themselves and the give and take of their relationship. One thing’s for sure: It would be difficult to do justice to what they’re bringing to the stage in any three-minute music video. For tickets, visit soul2soulvenetian.com.
photography by Russell James styling by Petra Flannery; Denise Truscello/Wireimage; SG ranitz/Wireimage (AMA ); Jim Smeal/Wireimage (CMA )