To truly appreciate the otherworldly talent of Faith Hill, you've got to see her perform live. The pride of Star, Mississippi grew up singing in church, with her musical roots following her to Nashville and shining through song after chart-topping song. With a voice that marries twangy country charm with soul, gospel and R&B, Hill puts on a show that is nothing short of a religious experience. While we wait (impatiently) for her next album, as well as celebrate her birthday today (September 21st), Rolling Stone Country looks back at the stage moments that have solidified Hill as one of the best live performers of her generation. . . if not all time.
When Faith Hill released her 1993 debut, Take Me as I Am, she included an innocently twangy cover of the Erma Franklin classic, "Piece of My Heart," a track which was plunged into musical lore once Janis Joplin offered her bluesy, psychedelic take. Back in the Nineties, the waistline on Hill's denim was as high as her hair – and thus her version was sweet and sensible, as a young country newcomer enamored with Reba McEntire and Tammy Wynette. But over the years, Hill became a crossover sensation, and when she revived "Piece of My Heart" at the 2012 CMA Music Festival, she brought way more Joplin spirit along for the ride: Head-banging in heels throughout the song as her guitarists blazed, she hit those high notes even down on her knees. Who says rock & roll is just for kids?
Hill was noticeably pregnant with her first daughter when she appeared in the music video for 1997's "It's Your Love," a duet with new husband Tim McGraw. Later that spring, the parents-to-be shared the stage together at the ACM Awards for a live, temperature-rising version of the tune. Sporting a big baby bump and bigger voice, Hill walked onstage during the power ballad's first chorus, sharing smiles and harmonies with McGraw while smoke billowed, strings soared, and country fans swooned. "It's Your Love" wound up becoming the biggest country hit of the year, with its success due as much to the couple's chemistry as to the song's steamy lyrics.
Hill had no trouble admitting she fell in love with Little Big Town's "Girl Crush," strutting out in all black and rocking a pixie cut to join the harmony-rich quartet in singing the sultry torch song at a moment when it was still being called "controversial" in some quarters. It is the kind of slow burner ballad at which Hill excels and was a timely reminder that, while she hasn’t put out an album in some time, she can still hold her own with today's hottest hitmakers.
A full orchestra joined Hill in a 2002 performance of "When the Lights Go Down," filmed for both an NBC special that year and 2003 DVD release. With the string section adding even more of a dramatic flair to the remorseful tune, this rendition flexes not only Hill's incredible vocal muscles but also her storytelling savvy. When she sings about the bartender "wrestling the devil that tells him to pour another round," her impassioned delivery makes the booze slinger's pain jump through the screen. Penned by lauded songwriters Jeffrey Steele, Rivers Rutherford and Craig Wiseman, "When the Lights Go Down" is a standout track on what's arguably the strongest (and most controversial) album of Hill's career, the Grammy-winning, boundary-pushing Cry.
Back in 1994, Hill already had two Number Ones under her belt but was still regarded as a music newcomer. That year she appeared on an Elvis Presley tribute special and channeled her Mississippi roots for a swinging cover of the king's "Trying to Get to You." With her voice still full of twang and sass, she was in her comfort zone. In some early TV performances — when she was often onstage alone — Hill sometimes looked stiff, but with a full band behind her and a swaying groove to get into at the Elvis tribute, she really let loose. There's no production to speak of — just a killer band, a cool song and a powerful, free-flowing set of pipes — but the magnetism that would soon draw her legions of fans is on full display.
No offense to Mr. Faith Hill, but letting his wife take center stage for the first two minutes of their "Like We Never Loved at All" duet at the 2005 CMA Awards while he stood on an unlit staircase behind her gave this performance a powerful punch. By the time the audience sees that it's Tim McGraw on background vocals, Hill's soaring voice, filled with anguish, has set the painful scene for this breakup tune from her stellar Fireflies album. And though fans of country's first couple may love seeing them gaze into one another's longing eyes while sharing the same microphone, as they often do, the fact that they barely share eye contact until the final, roof-blowing end proves the pair's acting chops, as well.
America's national anthem is famously difficult to sing – unless you're Faith Hill. She sailed through the "Star Spangled Banner" with unflappable poise and perfect pitch at the Super Bowl in 2000 (which incidentally found Hill's home team, the Tennessee Titans at the big game for the first and only time). The song covers a huge vocal range, starting out extremely low and ending up sky high, but that didn't faze the country star in the slightest. Neither did the 19th century lyrics that many of us mumble through, nor the exploding rockets when her rendition really kicked into gear. With the entire continent of North America watching, Hill nailed it and looked comfortable doing so, tacking one of the most satisfying vocal flourishes in history to the end of the nation's proud musical theme.
Hill rarely gets to indulge her soulful side on television, so finding this stellar rendition of "Stronger" from 2007 is a pleasant surprise. Vocalists couldn't hide behind special effects on The Late Show With David Letterman – and Hill didn't need to. With this impassioned ode to an ex, she captures the screaming rage and the whispers of sorrow following a relationship's demise. Still, she insists that after the bruises and the tears, they'll both be stronger for it. Maybe that's true, but this song (written by Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey) grips the listener in a moment of heartbreak.
When Whitney Houston bailed out of the 2000 Academy Awards at the last minute (or was fired, depending on who you believe), Hill served as a radiant replacement, effortlessly belting "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in an all-star medley of Oscar-nominated songs, accompanied by Burt Bacharach on piano. It was a spine-tingling TV moment — and one that's nowhere to be found online, but when searching for it we found something even better: this mesmerizing 1996 rendition of the same Wizard of Oz tune, performed four years earlier at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Again with piano accompaniment, Hill exudes an angelic innocence in her delivery and hangs onto high notes that soar way over any rainbow.
You could not ask for a stronger reminder of the meaning of her first name than this incredibly reverent and ecstatic performance of the Christian hymn for then-new fan Winfrey. The talk show titan fell in love with Hill's take of the song during a rehearsal and asked her to sing it on the show. From the gentle a cappella open to the teasing in of her band and background singers to the rapturous close, this classic is clearly close to the singer's heart. And Winfrey's, too, since she proceeded to sing along as Hill indeed gave it her all.