Country's reigning husband and wife are Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who are currently on their Soul2Soul Tour, the biggest-grossing tour in the music's history. McGraw and Hill hitched their rising stars to one other in 1996, after breaking off their respective engagements. Since then, they've become a commercial supernova and the epitome of familial perfection.
Their phenomenal success, both as solo artists and a duo, eclipses that of country's all-time king and queen: George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Like McGraw and Hill, Wynette and Jones were stars long before marriage. A living legend, Jones has scored hits in every decade since the '50s. His ballad "He Stopped Loving Her Today" epitomizes the classic country weeper. As for Wynette, she didn't earn the sobriquet First Lady of Country Music for nothing. "Stand by Your Man," her crossover smash from 1968, recorded a year before she became Jones' third wife, is one of pop music's monster classics.
However, becoming one of country's great couples takes more than moving units. In order for fans to consider a couple family, three additional ingredients are needed: down-home authenticity, syrupy love ballads, and scandal/controversy. George and Tammy embodied all three -- but do Tim and Faith?
Country fans want to believe their heroes have one foot on the hog farm, even when they're driving Beamers. When the wife cheats, the dog croaks, and Texas-size heartache is drowned in an endless whiskey river -- that's the country way.
The music plays a key role in shaping these myths. Sporting Nudie suits and extravagant evening gowns, Jones and Wynette trafficked in all-you-can-eat portions of raging despair. Wynette famously spelled out "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," while Jones moaned "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)."
Neither Hill nor McGraw are traditionalists. Breathe, Hill's 1999 crossover smash, found her crooning slick power ballads as a sexed-up diva. Purists scorned her.
In a bid to reclaim her alienated fanbase, Hill returned to her natural brown locks. On "Mississippi Girl," from 2005's countrified set Fireflies, she even proclaimed that she was just an unaffected small-town girl at heart. It worked like a charm.
Unlike his wife, McGraw never had to aim for crossover success in order to sell truckloads of records to both pop and country fans. Although he doesn't embrace the hard stuff like Jones, McGraw knows how to play the role of southern family man. His latest single, "Last Dollar (Fly Away)," features a kiddie chorus sung by his daughters. It's the perfect touch.
They boast the same sticky appeal as florid romance novels, with all the vicarious cheap thrills that go along with them. Jones and Wynette's early ballads ached with weariness. Eventually those gave way to the straight-up doomed marriage scenarios like "Golden Ring" -- "She says, 'One thing's for certain/I don't love you anymore.'/And throws down the ring/As she walks out the door." Needless to say, George and Tammy only lasted six years.
Dewey-eyed platitudes make up the bulk of the Hill-McGraw song canon. The titles say it all: "Let's Make Love," "Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me," and "It's Your Love," an ode to their perfect union that won the Academy of Country Music's Single of the Year for 1998.
Love is just as traditional as misery, but Tim and Faith's relationship often feels too flawless -- a point we flesh out in the next section.
Hill and McGraw are the power couple with the Midas touch. Just look at them: white-bread specimens of physical perfection with three lovely daughters. They are at the height of their careers, seemingly able to juggle family and fame with an unnatural ease.
Their cozy image of domestic bliss has never been marred by scandal -- unless you count the time last year when cameras caught Hill reacting with sputtering disbelief as Carrie Underwood won the CMA's Female Vocalist of the Year. And don't forget the day McGraw was arrested after a New York policeman mistakenly assumed he and pal Kenny Chesney were stealing a horse. Oh, so sordid.
No one can deny happiness, but sometimes fans need to know their stars are frail, just like them.
Of course, things can get out of hand in a hurry.
Jones' coke-and-booze-fueled misadventures are legendary. Jones drove his lawn mower to the liquor store twice, because his wife hid the car keys. Then the Possum capped off the '70s with a stint in a psychiatric hospital.
Wynette's no-less-turbulent life included five marriages, an addiction to painkillers, shock treatment, domestic violence, and a staged kidnapping in 1978. No wonder Wynette, who passed away in 1998 after years of poor health, described performing as an escape from the turmoil of home life.
Imagine Faith fabricating her own kidnapping. Fans would drop her like a bad habit. But that was never a problem with Jones and Wynette, whose train-wreck existence only added to their allure. She was too fragile, and he was too enslaved by self-destructive impulses.
In recent decades, country has cleaned up its image, emphasizing the suburban over the backwoods. With their flag-waving, mom-and-apple-pie decency, Hill and McGraw are the music's face. However, they are who we would like to be, not who we actually are. That's why the magnificently flawed Jones and Wynette will always be nearer to our bruised hearts -- even if we refuse to admit it.