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POP MUSIC REVIEW

McGraw and Hill Take Safe Country Road

September 12, 1996|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tim McGraw stomped onto the Universal Amphitheatre stage on Tuesday like some kind of country-music outlaw, wearing a big black hat and singing "I'm a renegade. . . . "

It was not a moment meant to be truly dangerous, in the way Johnny Cash might sing of shooting someone "just to watch him die." McGraw and opening act Faith Hill were less interested in moving country music in challenging new directions than they were in being the perfect hosts.

A bit of self-deprecating humor from McGraw while introducing his father and baby daughter on stage was more in character. His music was largely unremarkable, mid-tempo country that turned downright weepy on "She Can't Really Be Gone," a syrupy ballad that remained country-like only because of McGraw's Louisiana drawl.

More effective was his duet with Hill on "Nobody Knows It but Me." Like McGraw, Hill has regularly topped the country charts in recent years. But Hill also has massive crossover potential, with a voice seemingly as comfortable in slick, R&B-flavored ballads as in country.

Hill's performance on Tuesday also showed more substance than the most recent work of one of her main influences, Reba McEntire. While much of her material was as soft and safe as a down pillow, Hill also could rip convincingly through moments of gospel and blues.

Her funked-up country version of "Piece of My Heart" was forgettable, but the sheer thrust of her vocals (along with an unstoppable aim to please) makes Hill a singer with a future far beyond the country charts she's already conquered.

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