Martina McBride has always been a spokesperson for the downtrodden, particularly women. The Nashville star defied stereotypes that said country music was centered on the perspectives of men and a conservative America. Because of her courage to write against expectation, she has inspired many. Ironically, the co-opting of her music in ways she never intended has inspired even more.
McBride’s biggest hit, 1994’s “Independence Day,” has been used by GOP politicians like Sarah Palin and right-wing mouthpieces like Sean Hannity purely for its title and the surface meaning of its chorus, “Let freedom ring!” Never mind that the song is about a woman risking everything to escape an abusive relationship. Politics loves a skin-deep read, like the way Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song about a disenfranchised Vietnam veteran, as if it were a patriotic rallying cry.
Born in 1966, McBride (née Schiff) grew up on a farm in Kansas, where there was always music in the house. Her favorite were records by female country stars like Reba McIntire and Patsy Cline and some with more of a pop sound, like Juice Newton. Her dad had an amateur country band; after years of imitating the records, McBride started singing with the band. She started her own group in the late 1980s and married her producer, John McBride, in 1988. Soon after they moved to Nashville, they both found work with a Garth Brooks tour: John as sound engineer and Martina as opening act. (John and Martina McBride are co-owners of Nashville’s famed Blackbird Studio; see John Seetoo’s article in Copper Issue 125)
She signed with RCA Records in 1991, and by 1992 had her album debut, the traditionally flavored The Time Has Come. “The Rope” is a beautiful folk-inspired song by Stephanie Davis (who has written for Brooks, Waylon Jennings, and other country luminaries) and a good introduction to McBride’s sweet voice and lyrical phrasing.
While The Time Has Come sold decently, with the title track cracking the Top 40, McBride’s real breakthrough came in 1993 with her second album, The Way That I Am. That record gave her two Top-10 singles: “My Baby Loves Me” and “Life #9.” Although “Independence Day” only hit the No. 12 spot, it was destined to become her best-known song. It also got her the first of 14 nominations for Grammy Awards, a prize she has never won.
That track came about through serendipity. Gretchen Peters, who wrote “Independence Day,” had been hired by Tree Publishing to add more female storytelling to their offerings. Sony Music bought out Tree Publishing around the time McBride was signed to the Sony-owned RCA Records. Raised on 1960s folk revival music like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Peters admired Nashville non-conformists, so she was happy to have McBride record her song. What happened to it after that, of course, was beyond their control.
One of the elements that helped sales for The Way That I Am was that McBride was beginning to let in more pop-influenced sounds in her arrangements. That can be heard on the album-only song “Goin’ to Work,” in the longing of its country-style vocals against rock-inspired accompaniment, especially in the drumming style and the electric guitar solo toward the end.
McBride’s popularity continued to grow. By the time she made Evolution in 1997, she was able to release fully half the album as successful singles. Two of them, “Broken Wing” and “Wrong Again,” reached No. 1. An appealing aspect to this album and its singles were some duets – one with country star Clint Black and one with pop singer Jim Brickman.
The wildly popular Evolution was McBride’s first truly cross-genre country pop album, a trend that was also buoying the careers of Faith Hill and Shania Twain. She also mixed in touches of the sentimentality of Christian rock (although not specifically on Christian-themed songs), as in her performance of the Michael Smith song “Some Say I’m Running.” One of McBride’s vocal strengths is her detailed control over dynamics, which is particularly evident in this song.
The 1999 album Emotion is interesting for its varied track list, ranging from the often-modulating rock song “Do What You Do” to the old-school feel of Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs’ “Anything’s Better Than Feeling the Blues.” Against a landscape of fiddles and snare drums, “This Uncivil War” (by Gretchen Peters, composer of “Independence Day”) uses battlefield fighting as an analogy for family strife.
McBride got a chance to record a song by someone she’d long admired, Patty Griffin. “Goodbye” finds McBride using a breathy version of her voice to express loneliness and regret, leaping up to pitches that fade off into the ether.
Going back to basics with classic country numbers, 2005’s Timeless proved to be another big success for McBride. She tapped into Nashville’s motherlode of great songs by artists like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, and Loretta Lynn. Country fans must have been hungry for a return to the genre’s roots.
McBride shows her mastery of traditional country vocal phrasing. Despite the potential power of her voice, she doesn’t over-sing. That self-control – emotional understatement – is an important element of early country recordings. You can hear it on her version of Don Gibson’s “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
There were some important career developments for McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. For one thing, it was the first record she produced by herself. It was also to include her compositional efforts after decades of only singing other people’s songs. She is listed as co-writer on two of the songs, including the hit single “Anyway” which she composed with Brad and Brett Warren.
Her other songwriting contribution is also a collaboration with the Warren brothers, called “Beautiful Again.” The song is an interesting paradox, the music giving the illusion of brightness and optimism while the lyrics tell of layers of intense struggle in a woman’s life and the hope that keeps regenerating in her in spite of those challenges. McBride clearly tapped into the factor that most drew her to country music in the first place: its knack for storytelling.
Having left RCA, McBride jumped around smaller labels, including having her own label for a while. Her 2016 studio album Reckless came out on the boutique label Nash Icon, which has a tiny but exclusive artist list: McBride, Reba McIntire, Hank Williams, Jr., and Ronnie Dunn. The album reached No. 2 on the country charts; it’s a testament to the depth of a performer’s fan base when they stay devoted for her entire career.
Hailey Whitters wrote “Low All Afternoon” and had recorded it herself. McBride’s version is more sorrowful, less angry.
McBride’s most recent release was 2018’s It’s the Holiday Season; there will likely be another studio album soon. Meanwhile, she’s the subject of an exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, Martina McBride: The Power of Her Voice. It celebrates the singer’s “substantive, socially aware country music” and “anthems of personal empowerment.” Country music has come a long way, thanks to artists like Martina McBride.
Header image courtesy of Red Light Management.