Have you seen Faith Hill lately? The country music superstar used to look more like Celine Dion than the country girl we typically associate with the sound of the American South. But with the release of "Mississippi Girl," Hill's first single in two years, she has unveiled more than just a new song: She's showing off a brand-new, down-home identity.
Just look at "Mississippi Girl's" cover: Hill's hair, straightened and bleached for years à la Paris and Lindsay, is now big, brown and curly. The form-fitting, sexy duds she wore on her last two album covers are gone (not to mention the lingerie she donned for the Playboy-esque liner notes that accompanied 1999's "Breathe"); the fashion model pout and heavy makeup have been replaced with a big grin and a healthy farm girl glow. The new Faith looks straight into the camera, thumbs hitched in the pockets of her blue jeans, with her legs and hips splayed in an attempt to look ungainly. In other words, y'all, she's a country girl.
So what's behind Faith Hill's new look? It's pretty simple: money. And more specifically: Gretchen Wilson, the hottest country newcomer since the Dixie Chicks. Wilson, whose debut album "Here for the Party" has sold more than 4 million copies, won a Grammy and tapped a major vein with her 2004 anthem "Redneck Woman," in which she declared "I ain't no high-class broad/I'm just a product of my raising/I say 'Hey y'all' and 'yee-haw.'" Hill wants "Fireflies" -- her new record to be released next month -- to sell big time, and sees reclaiming her down-home origins as a way to do it. Her last album, 2002's slick and twang-free "Cry," was a commercial disappointment, selling around 2.7 million copies -- about 5 million fewer than her previous release, "Breathe." Meanwhile, sales of traditional-sounding country records have been soaring: Aside from newcomer Wilson, look at George Strait, the original hat act, who just booted Coldplay from the top spot on Billboard's album chart. Hill and her handlers clearly figure it's time to jump on the yee-haw wagon.
Redneck culture has been edging toward a major comeback for a while, and it has seeped way beyond the Southern states; there's a ranch-owning Texan in the White House, a much-ballyhooed "Dukes of Hazzard" feature film headed for theaters and a NASCAR track planned for New York. Crossover divas are out; the New South of Shania Twain and GOP-lite Democrats like Al Gore is over. The Old South of Bo Bice, the Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque runner-up on "American Idol," and conservative Republicans like Bill Frist is the new new thing.
"Mississippi Girl" is Hill's "Jenny From the Block." Let's call it "Faith From the Sticks." In it, Hill justifies her foray into mainstream fame and her bit part in last year's remake of "The Stepford Wives": "Well I spent a few weeks in California/They put my face on the big movie screen/But that don't mean I've forgotten where I came from/That's just me chasing dreams." (I didn't turn into a Hollywood liberal y'all, really!) She still sounds like a big-voiced pop diva, despite her best attempts at sounding gospelish with a chorus of na-na-nas. Hill goes on to assure us of her good ol' gal status by reminding us she's from the tiny town of Star, Miss., she's a mother, and she wears a dowdy old baseball cap on her days off from superstardom. This focus on wholesome tradition also separates her from newcomers like Tift Merritt and Catherine Britt, who posed for the lad magazine FHM in March and caused an outcry among many country fans, who declared on message boards and blogs that the women were strumpets for showing so much skin.
Of course, Hill isn't alone among mainstream country stars in flaunting her inner hayseed. The cover of the new album from Lee Ann Womack -- who recently toned down the makeover that inspired one critic to say the singer looked like "Britney Spears' mom" -- offers a visual shout-out to classic albums by Tammy Wynette, and Womack had a Top 15 hit with an old-fashioned cheatin' song, "I May Hate Myself in the Morning." Sara Evans, who topped the country charts in the late 1990s with a crossover sound, went to the top of the country charts with the bouncy, steel-guitar-tinged "Suds in the Bucket." Toby Keith -- most famous for his jingoistic "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (the Angry American)" -- tells of his uneducated Oklahoma beginnings in a hit single titled "Honkytonk U." And Trisha Yearwood, one of the '90s most popular female country singers, is crooning about her humble roots in "Georgia Rain" (even as she prepares to wed Garth Brooks, who made pop crossover success so desirable and profitable in the early 1990s).
But for how long can this strain of country hold? How many times can singers go back to their rural roots? Country music has been through traditional movements in the past. The late 1970s saw the rise and fall of outlaw country, and Randy Travis sparked a neotraditional movement in the mid-1980s. Both of these rural revivals were followed by commercialized imitators; urban cowboys replaced outlaws, and Brooks followed the neotraditionalists. Hill's attempt at sounding country probably signals the beginning of the end for the latest retro cycle.
Country is caught up in the rise of red-state culture -- a shift that has the heartland feeling a little superior these days. "There's definitely red-state pride out there," says Chris Willman, author of the upcoming book "Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music." "People aren't ashamed of being from a red state. They feel that if people on the coasts don't get it, then that's all right. They'll accentuate their differences." Indeed, many red-state folks are feeling as if they've won the latest round in our never-ending culture wars. Beyond creeping into the popular culture, they reelected George W. Bush and sent John Kerry home to Massachusetts. Now they're certain they'll get some conservatives appointed to the Supreme Court during Bush's tenure.
"There's a fear and anxiety over a world gone mad," says Jeff MacGregor, author of "Sunday Money: Speed! Lust! Madness! Death! A Hot Lap Around America With NASCAR." "NASCAR is a good lens through which to view the new American cultural upheaval," he says. "There is this absolute hunger for simple morality. People look around and they see their lives becoming more complex. It scares them. They're constructing this accessible, blue-collar mythology."
Still, all the steel guitars and homespun homilies in Tennessee can't assuage a lurking sense in much of America that the world is a crazy mixed-up place that will never be as ordered as we'd like. A return to 1957, as MacGregor describes the NASCAR culture, can hold for only so long. But as the country slides into this imagined past and Faith Hill pulls on blue jeans, one has to wonder what's next. The Dixie Chicks in Loretta Lynn dresses? A satellite radio channel devoted to Larry the Cable Guy?