COUNTRY GIRL @ HEART

Fending off criticism that she's forgotten the music that started her on the path to superstardom, Faith Hill adamantly defends her country credentials -- and tells why she's remixing her new single to appeal to country radio

Faith Hill stands at the edge of a cliff overlooking a southern California beach. With her long blond hair flowing in the wind, she kisses and then releases a dove into the air. It's all part of a video shoot for her latest single, "You're Still Here," a song about surviving loss and letting go -- a subject all too familiar to Faith these days.

She's trying hard to let go of her hurt over the barbs directed at her album, Cry, which hasn't fared as well on country radio as she'd hoped. Critics and fans alike have accused her of leaving country -- and now they're accusing her of staging an insincere comeback with "You're Still Here" by replacing the original pop-sounding string section intro with a steel guitar.

So the question of the moment: Is Faith really planning a country homecoming?

"I never left!" exclaims Faith passionately. "Everybody just assumed I had."

Perhaps the assumptions came after Faith -- once a staple at country radio -- was told that Cry just didn't work for the country radio format. As a result, the album's two single releases (the title cut and "When the Lights Go Down") peaked at No. 12 and No. 26, respectively -- quite a contrast to the No. 1 singles from past albums.

Faith says she was surprised at the lukewarm response to Cry.

"I felt like everyone thought I was moving away from country," she confesses. "And I never, ever felt that way when I made this record. I made this record for everybody. I didn't make a pop record. My record doesn't sound anything like Jennifer Lopez or Justin Timberlake or Christina Aguilera. And my record doesn't sound like some country artists, either. It's my own sound -- and I've always made my records that way."

"I think it was just a little bit misunderstood," she adds. "I think people thought I'd gotten too big for my britches or something. I've heard so many comments that I don't even know where to begin. But it wasn't at all the intention -- ever.

"Country radio is not playing [Cry]. They didn't want to play it. Even though they liked the songs, they felt like it didn't work for their format. So I'm trying to figure out ways that my fans can hear this music."

Toward that goal, she came up with a plan to get her songs back to the ears of the fans who brought her to the dance -- the country core responsible for making her a star to begin with. One way is by remixing "You're Still Here," a song with an intricate string opening that Faith guessed -- correctly -- would cause country purists to cringe.

"Honestly, when I recorded the original version, I wanted simplicity," she says.

"But when the string arranger got the song, he created this introduction to the song that almost sounds like a movie soundtrack, because it was so inspiring to him. I really liked it -- but I knew that if it was ever a single, we would certainly have to make some changes to it."

Following her 1994 debut, Faith quickly went from down-home darling to superstar, seemingly cemented in the country format. Facing a backlash is clearly a new experience -- but one that Faith got a taste of on her last album, Breathe, which catapulted her into pop crossover success.

"With the entire album cycle of Breathe, I fought the fight: 'I'm an artist -- please just look at me as a musician who happens to sound different than some of the other ones on this [country] format,' " she says. "When I went in to make Cry, I said, 'I don't want to answer those questions anymore.'

"But then I found myself in a tornado that I didn't even realize I was in the middle of. I was in Europe promoting the record. I came back and it was just this unbelievable backlash that I was absolutely, completely naive to."

Read more about Faith Hill in the current 6/10/03 "Newsstand Issue" on sale now!

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