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WEEKEND REVIEWS | Pop Music Review

The Royal Couple of New Country Follow the Storybook

August 07, 2000|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Country music used to be the clarion call of the rebel. The genre's biggest artists staked a claim to society's margins, preaching a code of self-reliance and rugged individualism as a rear guard response to the grinding conformity of contemporary life.

Over the past decade, however, country music has moved into the cookie-cutter subdivisions of the suburbs, with a bloodless sound that has replaced the old rough-edged rustic drawl with the smooth cadence of '70s soft rock and the blithely generic production values of adult contemporary pop.

Within the cosmos of this new country universe, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw stand as two of the genre's brightest constellations.

Hill and McGraw are pop celebrities of their times, their current drawing power as a husband-and-wife touring act an ideal marriage of storybook romance, G-rated sex appeal and do-gooder optimism, wrapped in the bunting of corporate largess (both artists came equipped with their own sponsors).

For their sold-out concert at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim on Friday, Hill and McGraw offered up love as an indomitable life force, providing a platonic ideal of connubial bliss for a (mostly female) crowd eager to believe.

Opener Hill's connection to country music is vestigial, at best. Had she been raised in L.A. as opposed to Mississippi, she might have been marketed as a pop diva, like Cher.

The main body of her set was country as compassionate conservatism; her protagonists found serenity in religious faith and moral strength in the ties that bind. These are admirable ideals, to be sure, but ring hollow in Hill's passionless, by-the-numbers approach.

If Hill is the people's princess, then Tim McGraw is the people's outlaw. With his black, cutoff T-shirt, black hat and goatee, McGraw cut a baleful figure, but his good-time persona is about as threatening as Quick Draw McGraw.

Truer to country's time-tested tropes than Hill, McGraw's songs sketched out a narrative of wanderlust that took him from Mexico to all points south in search of . . . what else?: a perfect love.

But McGraw leaned too hard on trite novelty sing-alongs that are interchangeable with most of what is heard on country radio these days.

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