Have a Little Faith

Keeping it real with the women of Nashville, however ersatz 'real' may be.

If everyone in Nashville jumped off a bridge, Faith Hill would, too. But Mrs. McGraw would not be one to slip inconspicuously over the rail. With Pepsi a proud sponsor, she'd stage her mighty plunge in a glitzed-out manner befitting a Super Bowl halftime show. And it would suck. Hill humps a trend with a shamelessness rivaled only by her bloodlessness, bull's-eying whatever's cold and bombastic about her sources. The Shania clone of 1999's Breathe bypassed humor and groove en route to steroidal drum-guitar thumpety-schlock that suggested anorgasmic sex with a StairMaster. Three years later, with the post-9/11 country charts inhospitable to womenfolk, Hill targeted a broader pop base, greasing herself for the cover of Cry like a One Tree Hill starlet in Stuff and mercilessly raising Celine to the Dionth power.

Fireflies (Warner Bros.) is Hill playing catch-up with the down-home drift Gretchen Wilson began when she revived a gal-friendly Nashville last year, and if you doubt Faith's commitment, check out those newly unconcealed brunet roots. But though Hill even borrows key Gretchen contributor John Rich, her "same ol' G" moment, "Mississippi Girl," is to "Redneck Woman" as Days of Future Passed is to Sgt. Pepper's—the reddest neckery Hill cops to is wearing jeans and playing piggyback with the kids. The potentially great "Dearly Beloved" ("We're gathered here today/To watch two people we know/Make a big mistake") deserves a friskier interpreter—if not Wilson, then the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines. And the actual "real Faith" drips through as the album wears on: "We've Got Nothing but Love to Give," for instance, centers around the persistent delusion that there'd be no war in a world run by children, while wondering, "Is everything A-OK in the U.S.A.?" with nonpartisan uselessness.

Not that Wilson herself deserves high marks for acuity these days. "Politically Uncorrect," the big "statement" on her sophomore disc, All Jacked Up (Epic), is defiantly vacuous even by the standards of pop demagoguery. Its vague support for third-shifters, single moms, and soldiers is the aural equivalent of a yellow-ribbon magnet slapped on an Expedition, and the implication that "I'm for the Bible/And I'm for the flag" is a controversial public statement makes me want to burn both fetish items. Wilson cultivates her persona so clumsily on cuts like "Skoal Ring" (she's fer 'em) or "California Girls" (agin 'em), I'm reminded just how improbable a balance of commercial cunning and self-possessed sass Rich and his partner, Big Kenny, helped her pull off on Here for the Party. Strongly opposing both "bling bling"—unlike Big and Rich themselves, if "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" is to be believed—and Paris Hilton, All Jacked Up is the work of a woman pretending, unconvincingly, that her knowledge of the world beyond her zip code is limited to what was covered on last night's Extra.

On the other hand, a Paris ref would sure have freshened the cover of "One's on the Way" that Sara Evans lent to the Desperate Housewives soundtrack—Raquel Welch's paycheck just isn't the water cooler topic it was in '71. But Evans, a wily neotrad even at the height of Shania mania, lives up to her bedenimed cover art for A Real Fine Place (RCA). Let Gretchen boast about her dude's Skoal intake—Sara's getting her tunnel dug by a genuine coal miner. And yet, set aglow as she is by the "Coal Mine" hunk who's "Covered with dust/T-shirt tied/All muscled up," she proves herself capable of dropping a philanderer without a second thought on "Cheatin'." The 21-year-old racked with guilt over a backseat fling may not be the young woman plotting an escape route from her dead-end town on "Bible Story," and neither may grow up to be the contented housewife of "These Four Walls." Unlike Hill or Wilson, Evans expands the range of material she can cover by refusing to constrict herself to a single persona.

Martina McBride sidesteps that issue entirely with Timeless (RCA). The title gives her game away—classic covers tastefully delivered, and if her rich voice doesn't reinvigorate her predictable choices, it doesn't fail them either. Her slightly Lorrettafied yet still reserved take on "You Ain't Woman Enough" is quietly confident rather than rowdy, and she's surprisingly more George than Tammy on "Love's Gonna Live Here." (Taken in tandem with Wilson's repeated Possum inflections, this suggests the makings of a very weird new trend.) But to return to Desperate Housewives, nothing here's as fun or timely as McBride's soundtrack contribution—there's something stirring about hearing "the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA" come from a woman whose breakthrough hit, "Independence Day," was a young woman ambivalently celebrating her mom's revenge on an abusive husband.

That sort of domestic bonding across generations has always been country's strongest quasi-feminist trait, and no one in 2005 has captured it as sweetly as Jamie O'Neal. "Somebody's Hero" follows a stay-at-home mom's routine life, then closes with her daughter, "the envy of the nursing home," brushing mom's hair every day. Hailing from Australia by way of Vegas, this former Kylie backup singer may be vague about the defining qualities of "the perfect man" she hunts on "Tryin' to Find Atlantis," and she may be a mite too rah-rah when she crows "Girlfriends kick ass!" But Brave (EMI) offers as well rounded and felt a sense of female perspectives as Nashville is turning out these days—and O'Neal didn't even need to dye her blond hair to some more authentic hue to put it across.

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