The year was 1992. For Martina McBride, it seems like it was yesterday. Her first single, “The Time Has Come,” had just been released, and she was in her East Nashville home one night when she heard the record played on the air for the first time on WBVR 101.1 FM out of Russellville, KY. There have been many changes in the life and career of the top-selling artist, and on Monday, she sat down with Billboard’s Wade Jessen for a conversation concerning her career at the Country Music Summit, held at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel.
The subject matter covered the entire gamut of her career, as she talked about her early musical career in Kansas, marrying her husband John, and going to work on the road selling t-shirts for Garth Brooks. She says that his charisma was in place from the start. “It was very obvious, even from the start,” she said of Brooks’ star quality. “I remember John calling me from the road saying that he ran across the stage…like a rock star,” she says with a laugh.
Her career path found her on RCA Records in 1992, and though the singles off of The Time Has Come failed to get past the top 20 on the charts, she had a growing list of fans — including Jessen, who was programming WSM-FM at the time. He cited her underrated classic “Cheap Whiskey” as a song that made him a fan.
Radio began to come around with her 1993 releases “The Way I Am” and “Life # 9.” While they were both top-five smashes, it was her next single that broke the doors wide open for McBride — “Independence Day.” Released in the spring of 1994, the song started to climb slowly until the O.J. Simpson murder case. That unfortunate event made the song, as McBride says, “topical.” Even though the song only made it to # 12 on the charts, it became one of her defining career moments. Though the song might not be as controversial if released today, McBride said she didn’t think anything about recording the Gretchen Peters masterpiece. “I knew it was different, but never thought it was that big of a deal. I thought everyone would want to play it.”
That song, chart position aside, brought her to the “A-List,” a place she hasn’t left since. The next year, “Wild Angels” gave her a chart-topping single for the very first time, and she received an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. That was and is a big deal for the powerhouse vocalist — even fifteen years later. “That’s a part of country’s heritage,” she says of the WSM radio show. “To be a part of that family means everything. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Her induction will forever be special to the singer, as one of her heroes, Loretta Lynn, welcomed her as a member. “Doo was really sick at the time, but she came on to induct me,” she recalls of that night. Even though she cherishes relationships with legends like Lynn and Barbara Mandrell, she admits that it’s a different feeling than any she has felt. “I feel I get a little starstruck around legends like them. At first, I just kind of held myself back, but they have been so warm and welcoming to me.”
McBride was also asked about three very different musical projects that she has been a part of. In 1997, the singer issued her White Christmas holiday set, which has been a steady seller in the RCA catalog ever since. Of her approach to the classics-driven album, she said “I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel. I wanted to do a throwback album.” The set gave her a chance to do a Christmas tour, which she admitted she did for somewhat “selfish” reasons — “I just wanted to do these songs live,” she said.
Then, there was her 1999 blockbuster single “I Love You,” which also crossed over to the pop charts thanks to its’ exposure in the Julia Roberts film Runaway Bride. The single represented a little bit of a shift in what she had been recording up to that time. “That song came after we had released some really heavy songs. It was a breath of fresh air. It was really lighter than some of the stuff I had done. Being in Runaway Bride was a good thing, too.”
In 2005, the singer released one of her most successful albums to date — Timeless. The album of classic country songs was a favorite of many of her fans, and even fellow artists — like the legendary Buck Owens, who wrote the liner notes for the disc. “I had done a project called My Heart for Hallmark, and we cut ‘Together Again.’ He called me at the studio, and told me how much he loved that. He said ‘If there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.’ I said ‘Well…,’ He said ‘I don’t normally do things like that, but I will for you,” she recalls fondly. The album was released in October 2005, just five months before his passing.
McBride also talked about her recent “Shine All Night” tour, and the new team she has assembled to keep her career going. The singer also is excited about appearing on Kid Rock’s new album, Born Free. Hold on…Kid Rock and Martina McBride? Not as unlikely as you might think, she says. “It seems like an odd pairing, but he really respects country music, and makes that clear.” The song, “Care,” sounds like an interesting one. Kid Rock performs the first verse, McBride the second, and rapper TI the third.
At the end of the day, McBride is proud of what she has accomplished in her storied career, but she knows she’s only as good as the record she has out at the present. “You can’t rest on what you did yesterday,” the singer says. “You’ve got to keep that passion.”