From Johnny and June to Tim and Faith, Country Music Loves Power Couples, But There's More to it Than Meets the Eye | Music Feature | Indy Week
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From Johnny and June to Tim and Faith, Country Music Loves Power Couples, But There's More to it Than Meets the Eye 

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw

Photo courtesy of Messina Touring

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw

Last November, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man, an exhibit exploring and celebrating the careers of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. It was timed to coincide with the fourth joint tour in the duo's twenty-year marriage and their first duets album, The Rest of Our Life. The title is a callback to "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," a song from another country duo, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, whose relationship was platonic. In a bit of country destiny, though, Hill (the Mississippi Woman) and McGraw (the Louisiana Man) did end up together, filling some void for that humble, classic love story twenty years later.

Following a long line of famous country couples before them, McGraw and Hill have assumed the role of royalty as their peers have either separated or fallen out of the spotlight in recent years. Their partnership began just as their respective careers were taking off, and their growth since has been intertwined. Perhaps being in the public eye from the beginning is part of the reason why Hill's and McGraw's relationship exists on a level of its own—fans have seen the couple's ups and downs over the years. But their staying and selling power is currently unparalleled, likely tied to the marketability of their conventionally ideal marriage, given a country fanbase that craves icons who subscribe to their stereotypically wholesome values.

The couple met in 1996, when McGraw tapped Hill to join his aptly titled Spontaneous Combustion Tour as the opening act. She was riding the success of her second album, 1995's It Matters to Me. The record boasted five top-ten hits and was produced by her fiancé, Scott Hendricks, whose credits included Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and John Michael Montgomery. Coincidentally, McGraw had just broken off his own engagement. The two fell hard, and by the end of tour, Hill had called things off with Hendricks and entered a relationship with McGraw, who eventually proposed before a show. After learning Hill was pregnant with their first daughter, they married later that year.

Theirs was certainly not the most innocent beginning, but it was also not the first of its kind: What most call the original country duo, Johnny and June Carter Cash, began when Johnny toured with the Carter Family while still married to his first wife, and while June was still married to her second husband. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Amy Grant and Vince Gill—country power couples have a pattern of swiftly taking form after divorces, but that somehow doesn't dilute their fans' investment, as the stars' pasts are quickly wiped away from public scrutiny.

Missteps later in the relationship are also often paved over and spun to be part of the larger idealistic narrative. June Carter Cash is credited with "saving" Johnny from his various addictions throughout their marriage. Jessi Colter, the singer who was married to Waylon Jennings from 1969 until his death in 2002, largely gave up her own career to help her husband with his own substance abuse and health problems. Tim McGraw himself, who quit drinking in 2008, attributes his ability to maintain that lifestyle, as well as his initial decision to adopt sobriety, to Hill. Each of the women in these dynamics was portrayed as a matronly savior, dutifully leading her partner, who was bound to fall into trouble by his very nature as a man, back to the light, even if it meant taking the back seat. This vulnerability only makes them more relatable. Stand by your man, right?

That stepping away from the musical spotlight seems to be another pattern, at least for the women. Beyond Colter's aforementioned hiatus, Trisha Yearwood retreated a bit after she began dating Garth Brooks in 2002, and besides a success in 2005's Jasper County, she's been far more visible in recent years with projects like her Emmy Award-winning Food Network series Trisha's Southern Kitchen. And despite a few one-off tracks, Hill—who has an entire portion of the Soul2Soul show devoted to her own catalog—hasn't had a proper solo release since 2005's Fireflies.

Of course, separation for these couples was once unforgivable and could drastically alter one or both partners' careers and public perception. Tammy Wynette fell out of the charts after her very public divorce from George Jones—neither of the former couple's post-divorce duet albums cracked the country Top 10, but Jones's career largely thrived even through the nineties. More recently, Blake Shelton invited controversy by divorcing fellow country star Miranda Lambert and quickly entering a relationship with Gwen Stefani, his co-host on NBC's The Voice. It's not affected his chart performance—he's a bona fide celebrity and People's Sexiest Man Alive—and it seems to have boosted critical reception of Lambert's most recent album, 2016's The Weight of These Wings. On this front, it seems as though country fans have relaxed their attitudes a bit. There have been plenty of rumors about marital turmoil for McGraw and Hill over the years, but they've kept it together and steadily ascended. Their crossover appeal and household status makes it all the more special to their biggest fans that they depict such a conventional family to an audience that extends far beyond country music listeners.

Hill and McGraw's Soul2Soul tour usually closes with two solo songs, Hill's "Mississippi Girl" and McGraw's "Something Like That." Both are signature songs, and both channel the humble roots that are such a big part of the couple's appeal. As they make their way through the crowd, shaking hands in the mid-level seats, it's not hard to see why they feel like the dream couple next door. With so much power and money at their disposal they could lay low—most of the setlist is culled from the late nineties to the mid-aughts anyway. But instead, they keep moving, open enough so that fans still feel like they're part of the story, and that the story is one they approve.

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