FAITH HILL burst upon the country music scene in 1993 with the single "Wild One," and it became the first debut single by a female singer to top the country charts for four consecutive weeks since Connie Smith's "Once a Day" in 1964. Hill's debut album, "Take Me as I Am," also went to No. 1 and produced two more No. 1 singles -- "Piece of My Heart" and the title track. "Piece of My Heart" proved a most controversial song, however, for it transformed Janis Joplin's ferocious blues-rock standard into a polite country-pop ditty.
"I hadn't even heard the Janis Joplin version when I recorded Piece of My Heart,' " the 28-year-old Hill admits. "I was so embarrassed when I first came to Nashville because people would mention all these rock artists, and I didn't know who any of them were. I didn't even know who the Doors were till I saw the movie. For me, the big influence wasn't Linda Ronstadt; it was Aretha Franklin. I've always listened to Aretha. When you hear the drums and bass on my records, that's where it comes from."
Franklin's influence is a lot more obvious on Hill's second album, last fall's "It Matters to Me" (Warner Bros.), than it was on "Take Me as I Am." Hill, who opens for Tim McGraw at Patriot Center Friday and Saturday, climaxes the new album with "Keep Walkin' On," a full-throttle gospel duet with Shelby Lynne. Throughout the album, Hill sings with a soulful fervor closer in spirit to Joplin than the "Piece of My Heart" single ever was. That new confidence and authority informs such songs as "Let's Go to Vegas," a top-five single, and "It Matters to Me," which spent three weeks at No. 1. Songs such as the anti-spouse-abuse story-song, "A Man's Home Is His Castle," and the Alan Jackson-penned "I Can't Do That Anymore" are all about a strong woman demanding some "R-e-s-p-e-c-t" in her life.
Franklin's influence on Hill isn't so strange when you consider that both women got their musical start in church. Hill first started singing at the Star Baptist Church in the tiny town of Star, Miss. "When I was 3 or 4 years old," she remembers, "I stood up on the pew and sang along. It was just like that scene at the beginning of What's Love Got to Do With It' where the congregation is real subdued and Tina Turner is shouting with a lot of soul. That was me."
As a teenager, Hill joined the Steele Family from Jackson, Miss., a gospel quartet in the style of the Kingsmen, the Hempfields and the Cathedrals. The Steeles toured all over the Deep South, to white and black churches alike. "I always found myself gravitating toward the churches where the singers would fill themselves up with the spirit and just let it out," she says. "The black churches were by far my favorites. I used to tell my mom I was supposed to have been born black, because I felt most at home in those churches. They showed their excitement like I wanted to show mine."
Although she often performed in black churches, Hill attended an all-white school. "Unfortunately," she says, "segregation still happens in Mississippi. But I brought my black and Asian friends over to my house all the time, and my family never objected -- though some of my relatives did. To this day I can't stand to be around prejudiced people. I tell them to their face that they're ignorant."
Ironically, she was teased more at her school for loving country music than for singing in black churches. In a school where rock ruled, Hill was one of a handful of nonconformists who preferred country. She liked it all -- from Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn and George Jones -- but her biggest hero was Reba McEntire. When she saw McEntire in person at the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival in Meridian, Miss., she resolved to follow the same path. It was fitting, therefore, that Hill's first tour when her debut album came out was opening for McEntire all over the nation.
After "Take Me as I Am" became a million-seller, expectations for Hill's second album were incredibly high. On the one hand, she was offered the best songs from every publisher on Music Row, but on the other hand, the pressure was intense to pick just the right ones. Then, just as the recording sessions with producer Scott Hendricks were getting underway at the end of 1994, something went wrong with her voice.
"I was in the studio trying to sing," she says, "and I couldn't. I didn't have my usual pitch, range or strength. I'd say, Let me take a day off,' but that didn't work. Finally Scott said, Something is wrong; let's go to the doctor.' They found an enlarged blood vessel, and there was really only one decision to make -- surgery. I had to tell Warner Bros. that the album would be delayed; I had to tell Alan Jackson and George Strait that I couldn't tour with them. Everyone was very supportive and concerned. It gave me a lot of respect for a lot of people."
Her doctor removed the swelling in February of 1995 and for 2 1/2 weeks afterward Hill wasn't allowed to make a sound -- no whispering, no moaning, no mumbling, no anything -- total silence. It was during this period that Hendricks called her up and asked her to marry him. And she couldn't even answer.
"The very first day I could talk again," Hill says, "I called Scott and said, Yes.' It was the first word I had spoken in almost three weeks, and my voice sounded so strange." The couple is still waiting for an opening in their very busy schedules to set a wedding date.
After the 18 days of silence, she started her recovery therapy -- five minutes of talking the first day, then an extra five minutes a day until she was talking all the time. By April she was back in the studio, recording the songs that became the album, "It Matters to Me."
"It's natural that this album should sound a lot stronger," she says, "because I'm a lot more confident of who I am. Part of it is I've been singing on stage night after night for three years now, and the more you do something the better you become at it. Part of it, too, is I've gone from being 25 to being 28, which is a big change in anyone's life. Right before my audience's eyes, this child is growing up. I know more what I want to say, so more of me comes through." FAITH HILL -- Appearing Friday and Saturday at George Mason University's Patriot Center with Tim McGraw. To hear a free Sound Bite from "It Matters to Me," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. CAPTION: Faith Hill began her singing career at the Star Baptist Church in Star, Miss.