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Faith Hill reclaims her country roots

After three years, new album returns to a solid country sound
/ Source: Billboard

Who is Fern Holloway? If you’re one of the handful of insiders in her organization, you know that is the alias under which prereleases of Faith Hill’s new CD, “Fireflies,” were sent to members of her management team and label.

After Hill’s last album, 2002’s “Cry,” leaked out on the Internet ahead of its official release date, her organization made plans to keep the new album under wraps until just before its Aug. 2 release.

After all, there’s a lot riding on a project that, if all goes according to plan, will be Warner Bros. Nashville’s blockbuster for this year and well into next.

“Fireflies” is Hill’s sixth album. Each of her previous projects has a multiplatinum certification from the Recording Industry Assn. of America, so expectations are equally high here. Her last two albums each debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Like Hill’s last few albums, “Fireflies,” contains a mix of musical styles. But it is arguably the strongest collection of songs she has ever put together.

Country radio programmers who complained that there was nothing they could play on “Cry” will discover a wealth of potential singles. And fans who know Hill from her pop crossover hits are likely to find something to like on this CD as well.

Back to rootsThe first single, “Mississippi Girl,” returns Hill solidly to the country format where her career started and continued even after she became a crossover star, beauty magazine cover girl and Hollywood actress.

The biographical “Mississippi Girl” is No. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart this week and the fastest-rising single of Hill’s 12-year career. If it reaches the summit, as it is expected to do, it will be Hill’s ninth No. 1 country hit. She has also had eight top 10 hits in adult contemporary radio.

Big & Rich’s John Rich, one of Nashville’s hottest songwriters, contributed “Mississippi Girl” and two other songs to the album, including likely next single “Like We Never Loved at All.” The latter includes guest vocals from Hill’s husband and fellow country star, Tim McGraw.

On tour with McGraw last summer, Rich says he followed Hill around asking her questions until he had enough material to write “Mississippi Girl,” which even includes a verse about Hill’s first small acting role in the film “The Stepford Wives.”

Hill agrees with Rich’s version of events, noting, “It kind of sounds like a stalking, doesn’t it?”

But it paid off for Rich, who wrote the song with Big & Rich guitarist Adam Shoenfeld.

“To be able to write a song that gives somebody like Faith Hill an entrance back into where she wanted to (be) -- good lord -- that’s bigger than getting an ASCAP check,” Rich says. “It’s a silver bullet back at the target she was wanting to get back to with her music. I’m in awe of her talent.”

Hill says “Mississippi Girl” expresses just who she is. “I’m a very simple, approachable, nice, good person who just happens to have a big career,” she says. “I’ve had an incredible climb and done things that even I could never dream that I would ever do, but I have remained the same person.”

'I am so proud of it'Regardless of country radio’s reaction three years ago, Hill says she remains proud of the “Cry” album. “It was definitely a different record, but I had to make that record and I am so proud of it,” she says.

Once the recording process on “Fireflies” drew to a close, Hill was startled to realize that it had taken two years.

“I was just kind of lost in the whole process and I didn’t realize that we had been working on this album for that long,” she says. “Towards the last six months it all started to fall in place.”

Hill says the strength of her albums comes largely from the songs she chooses to cut, since she is not a songwriter herself.

“I rely completely on the songs that are brought to me in order to make an album,” she says. “It just took this long to figure out what it was I wanted (those songs) to say.”

Hill recorded more than twice the 14 songs that made it to the album. But she says all the songs she chose for the final cut are “me in some kind of way.”

In addition to Rich, “Fireflies” contains songs from many of Nashville’s A-list writers including Rivers Rutherford, Darrell Scott, Craig Wiseman and Troy Verges.

A new findBut Hill’s secret weapon on this album is the discovery of singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. Until now a largely unknown talent, McKenna is about to become a hot commodity thanks to Hill’s inclusion of three of her songs on “Fireflies,” including the title song.

It was the discovery of McKenna’s songs, Hill says, that put the whole album on track. In fact, Hill had once previously declared the album finished. But when she found McKenna’s work, Hill called her co-producers and told them she wanted to go back in the studio.

“I think they all wanted to strangle me at that moment,” she admits.

McKenna writes from the perspective of a woman old enough to have seen enough of life to have been disillusioned and inspired by it. The first song of McKenna’s that Hill heard, “If You Ask,” is one of the three she recorded.

“I really felt like I could interpret these songs. I feel like I wrote them,” Hill says. “It’s hard to make that connection sometimes. That’s why, as an artist, I have to be really patient and be strong in what it is I want to do. Sometimes I just have to experiment with a lot of stuff and figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it.”