Just an infant, Hill is adopted by Ted Perry, a factory worker, and his wife, Edna, a former bank teller in the small town Star, Mississippi. Hill won't meet her birth mother (and biological brother) until 1993, finding them after a three-year search. "The first time I met her I just stared at her," Hill tells PEOPLE in 1999. "I'd never seen anybody that looked anything like me. It was the awe of seeing someone you came from. It fills something."
After a semester of junior college, Hill relocates to Nashville. "I really believed I'd just get on the Grand Ole Opry stage, start singin', and be on a bus travelin' the next day," she tells EW in 1994. She supports herself selling T-shirts, working as a receptionist, and packaging merchandise for Reba McEntire's company. In 1988, the 20-year-old (still Faith Perry at the time), marries music publishing exec Dan Hill, 29. In 1991, she signs a record deal with Warner Bros. before splitting with her husband in 1994. "I was young," she tells PEOPLE in 2000. "I just jumped in the fire way too soon."
So much for starting slowly. Hill's first single, "Wild One," from her debut album Take Me As I Am, hits No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and stays there the entire month of January, making her the first female country singer to accomplish that feat in 30 years. She also makes PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful issue in 1995, 2000 and 2001.
In honor of her father, Hill creates the Faith Hill Family Literacy Project, which creates awareness of illiteracy in America and encourages fans to donate books at her concerts. Pat Perry, Hill's dad, quit school after fourth grade and never learned to read. "When I became an adult, I realized this world that he had never been introduced to," Hill tells PEOPLE in 1999. "I never knew how he got along without knowing how to read. He's a very intelligent man. I guess he recognizes things easily and has a good memory."
After she falls in love with fellow country star Tim McGraw while opening for his Spontaneous Combustion tour earlier in the year, the pair ties the knot in Rayville, La., near his hometown of Start. The nuptials occur just before Swampfest '96, a celebrity softball tournament hosted by McGraw. "My dressing room was a trailer house," McGraw tells PEOPLE of his proposal, which occurred just before a show in Montana. "I asked her to marry me right there. She said, 'I can't believe you're asking me to marry you in a trailer house,' and I said, 'Well, we're country singers, what do you expect?'" Hill accepted by writing "Yes" on a mirror in his trailer while he was performing onstage.
Hill welcomes her first child, Gracie Katherine, in Nashville. The couple welcomes their second daughter, Maggie Elizabeth, on Aug. 12, 1998. "We sing all the time," Hill tells PEOPLE in 1999. "We sing the Barney song, all the nursery rhymes you can imagine, country music songs, Rod Stewart. Gracie is into repeating everything right now. You can sing anything to her and the next day she'll be repeating it."
The VH1 Divas Live '99 show at New York's Beacon Theater is a hit, drawing 9.5 million viewers. Hill performs a duet with R&B singer Brandy and joins Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and LeAnn Rimes onstage for the show's finale – a rendition of Houston's hit "I'm Every Woman."
With nearly 250,000 albums sold in its first week, Hill's Breathe – her most pop-influenced effort to date – debuts at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart.
Subbing at the last-minute for a spaced-out Whitney Houston, according to PEOPLE, Hill performs "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at the Academy Awards. "She pulled it off flawlessly with two rehearsals," says Burt Bacharach, who arranged the show's music. "She's the real thing. She's just totally musical. She ain't bad looking, either." It's her second high profile appearance in two months. On January 30, she performed the national anthem for 88.5 million viewers at Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta.
Walking onstage to collect her award for favorite female musical performer at the American Music Awards, Hill surprises her fans with her short, shaggy, platinum locks, a drastic change from her usual blonde tresses. Cut earlier in the day by L.A. stylist Peter Savic, the new look seems to trump the three awards she wins that night. "All of a sudden it was like the scarlet letter: Your hair is gone!" she tells PEOPLE. "I'm a reality kind of girl. If that was a career setback, then God help us."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): COURTESY FAITH HILL; CLASSMATES YEARBOOK ARCHIVES; Steve Granitz/WireImage; John Chiasson/Liason; Frank Micelotta/Getty; Jeff Haynes/Getty; Mirek Towski/DMI/REX USA