BABY BOOM!

Story by Bob Paxman and Chris Neal

Shania Twain strolled to the podium at last year's CMA Awards and addressed an issue that weighed on her mind - family.

"One reason that I took time away from music," she said, "was because I needed to get to know my husband again."

Taking time for intimacy obviously paid off. Shania recently dropped a baby bombshell: She and husband/producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange are expecting a child - their first - this summer.

But Shania is just the latest star who has placed children at the top of her priority list.

Vince Gill and Amy Grant, the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, Sara Evans, Travis Tritt and Aaron Tippin have all recently become proud parents.

And the kiddie explosion doesn't stop there. Clint Black and actress wife Lisa Hartman Black are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their first child in May, which they have learned will be a girl. "This is our daughter's first concert!" Clint told a concert audience in December, with Lisa at his side.

Tracy Lawrence has also announced that he and wife Becca will be welcoming a new bundle this year. "Family is the number-one priority in my life," says Tracy, "so starting a family is something I have looked forward to for a really long time."

The Lonestar camp is bountiful with babies. Keyboardist Dean Sams and wife Kim had a boy, Bryson Dean, last December, while lead singer Richie McDonald's wife Lorie will deliver their third child any day now. What's more, Hal Ketchum and members of Rascal Flatts, Ricochet and Yankee Grey have welcomed new additions in the last several months.

There could also be another Dixie Chicks baby in the future. "[Natalie] made us very jealous," announced Chick Emily Robison when Natalie's son arrived in March. Emily's singer/songwriter husband, Charlie, confirms the couple is trying for a baby of their own. "It's very odd to actually be trying to have a child," he jokes. "You spend the first 30 years of your life trying not to."

Why the sudden baby boom? Perhaps the stars are taking a cue from Martina McBride, who speaks for many artists when she talks about the importance of career and family.

"I'm going to try and balance them," says Martina, the mother of two daughters. "One thing I've learned about myself is that I have to have a balance of home and the road."

Some stars are finding that children and family actually enhance their careers, not interfere with them - and that "having it all" no longer seems like a hopeless pipe dream.

Natalie Maines says that, career or not, having children was always part of the plan for her and husband Adrian Pasdar. "That's pretty much the reason we got married," she told a reporter. "It was just a surprise that it happened so soon."

Outsiders may have thought it was too soon for Sara Evans, who was not yet an established star when she took a year off after her son, Avery, was born. But Sara says the experience gave her inspiration when she returned to the studio to cut her breakthrough album, Born To Fly.

"Something just clicked in me when Avery was born," says Sara with a smile. "Going into the studio, I wasn't uptight, nervous or stressed out."

But enjoying both a musical life and a family life sometimes means sacrificing work. Having nursed regrets over not being around enough for 18-year-old daughter Jenny's childhood, Vince Gill is determined not to make the same mistake with his new daughter, Corrina, born on March 12. "It was hard to go through my child's life and realize how much I missed," he says. "I'm pretty confident I'll never tour as much as I once did."

Martina has already made that adjustment. "The longest I ever want to be gone now is three weeks," she declares emphatically. "I don't deal with it well if I'm gone longer. I think I've only been apart from my girls, Delaney and Emma, three days at any one stretch."

Aaron Tippin, who became a father again last December with the birth of second son Thomas Aaron, has also decided to cut back his touring schedule. "I definitely want to stay home more," declares Aaron. "I realize we've got to do shows, but I'm tough to get away from the house now."

The rough-hewn singer tenderly recalls seeing his 3-year-old son, Teddy, crying recently as he left for the road. "That really breaks you up," he says.

Some stars take drastic measures to put family first. John Michael Montgomery took a year off, right in the middle of a career hot streak in 1996, to be with wife Crystal through her pregnancy and the birth of daughter Madison.

"When you're starting a family, you don't need to be on the road," explains John Michael, now the father of two. "I will always put my wife and children first. I probably gave up chances to have even more success, but family is still the most important thing. That's what will last."

Although he's back in the groove these days, Travis Tritt took two years off the road to be with wife Theresa and their children, Tyler and Tristan. "I have the best of both worlds now," he declares. "I put my daughter to bed in the evening, then Daddy puts on leather britches and runs around onstage for two hours!"

After the baby has arrived, stars also find that parenthood has a way of turning once-carefree musicians into responsible adults.

"It's totally changed everything," raves Brett Warren of the Warren Brothers, who has a year-old son, Cole. "I was so scared of being a dad, but it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

Martina noticed a shift in her personality. "Motherhood changes your outlook," she says. "You become really protective, and you realize what you do impacts someone else's life. That's a huge responsibility."

And not one to be taken lightly. "When I was first starting out and playing clubs, the only mouth I had to worry about feeding was my own," recalls John Michael. "Whatever I did, good or bad, didn't affect anyone else but me. Now, I have to set an example. Your perspective totally changes.

"I couldn't imagine being 22 and having children," adds John Michael, who put off fatherhood until he was 31. "That would put a strain on a marriage. It's helped that I was a little older when I had children, because I'm much more mature and my career is good."

Newcomer, and bachelor, Chris Cagle is also playing the waiting game. "Everybody wants the American dream, everybody wants family - but you have to provide," says the "My Love Goes On And On" singer. "I've got plenty of time to raise children and affect their lives and love them as a daddy. And I want to do that."

While many still await parenthood, Collin Raye is re-living it. Collin, 41, became a grandfather when his daughter Britanny gave birth last year to her daughter, Haley. Britanny and Haley live with Collin in Nashville, and the new granddad bubbles with joy.

"It is like getting to be a parent again," notes Collin with a grin. "The difference is that I can be that calming influence when something's not quite right, or she cries for no reason. When you're young, you're just stressed all the time. But getting to have a baby in the house as an older, more mature person is fun. You just get to enjoy it, because nothing stresses you out."

There's no better stress test than the opposing forces of family and career. But the star parents are passing with flying colors - proving that it can be done.

Country's star couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, is perfecting the balancing act: finding time for their two daughters, Gracie and Maggie, while managing two careers that couldn't possibly be hotter. "It doesn't seem that difficult to us to juggle everything," observes Tim. "We know that the central focus is our family and everything else revolves around that. Before, you made all your decisions based on you and how you could survive, and now it's what's good for the whole family that you look for. I think as long as you keep that stable and centered, everything else falls into place."

Today's stars see no reason why they can't have fame, fortune, fans ... and family.

"I think everybody's ultimate goal is to have a little bit of it all," agrees John Michael. "I love having a family. I like driving my pickup around the country. I like my motorcycle. There's a lot out there to do, so I try to indulge as much as I possibly can. But it's important to keep a balance - I think that's the key word in life."

Children keep stars squarely on the balance beam. While fame and glamour are alluring, they can't take the place of kids.

Faith realizes that every time she steps away from the stage. "When I'm home, I miss the road and I miss my fans," she acknowledges. "But I wouldn't trade being with my daughters for anything. And I wouldn't trade motherhood for anything."

Country's baby explosion will likely keep booming - especially if Tim and Faith have their way. "We plan to have a very large family," says Faith. "Actually, Tim and I plan to have a million children!"

Talk about a baby boom!

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