Martina McBride Reflects on 25 Years In the Business & the Songs That Changed Her Career

Martina McBride
Courtesy Photo

Martina McBride

This year marks the silver anniversary of Martina McBride hitting the Billboard charts with her debut single, “The Time Has Come.” Since that single, she has carved out one of the most successful careers in the format, notching 41 top 40 hits on the Hot Country Songs chart, including five No. 1s, as well as four wins as the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. Billboard recently sat down with the singer-songwriter to talk about her life circa 1992, what she's up to now, and what the future holds for Martina McBride.

Twenty-five years have passed since your first hit. What are your thoughts on such a milestone?

It is hard to believe. I’m just happy that I still get to go out there and sing, and that people show up. In some ways, I’m enjoying it more than I ever have, because as you get older I think you appreciate it more. You’re not so quite caught up in the hectic rat race of it all. I toured a long time with babies, so now that they are all older, I can hang with my band and really enjoy it. It’s like a family out there. We’ve been together for so long, and have gone to so many places. It’s just a lot of fun.

Watching “The Time Has Come” hit radio and the charts, what are your memories?

I remember being kind of overwhelmed that it was actually happening. Everything was so new. I didn’t know how to promote a record, or what I had signed up for. I knew nothing about the business at all. I was young and eager to make it happen, and to make it work. I remember it being a lot of hard work, and that things weren’t super successful [the single peaked at No. 23 on Hot Country Songs]. You always dream that it’s going to be a big hit off the bat. We had ‘That’s Me,’ which we really believed in, and it didn’t do that well [No. 43]. I remember thinking ‘Well, that wasn’t the way I envisioned it happening.’ But, it was actually a blessing, because when I made the first record, I didn’t know who I was as an artist. I remember being asked ‘What kind of record do you want to make?’ and 'what kind of an artist do you want to be?' by the head of the record company. I didn’t know. That’s something you learn as you get older. I remember telling people that I wanted to be a super-traditional country artist, like Alan Jackson. That was such a big part of who I was. But, after "The Time Has Come" had been released, I had a little bit of time to settle. The second record, The Way I Am, I think reflected me more as an artist. In a way, I think things work out for a reason.

Of course, you got a chance to learn from the best, as both you and your husband John worked for Garth Brooks, and your first major tour was opening for Garth. What lessons did you come away with from those experiences?

I was always struck by his energy on stage, and the way he was with his fans. He always gave one hundred and ten percent, and always had a definite idea about what he wanted to do on tour, how he wanted to stage the show, and was very much in charge of it. That was a great example for me to follow.

You hit the top 10 with “My Baby Loves Me” and “Life #9,” and then you release “Independence Day.” If you look at the charts, it only was a No. 12 record, which might have represented a step back, but that proved to be the record that kicked your career into a higher gear. What did you think when you first heard the song?

I immediately felt like it was my song. As women, I think we’ve all felt powerless at the hands of someone else at one point in our lives, so I did identify the trapped feeling – not on that level, obviously, that the woman felt in the song. Mostly, I think I wanted to tell the story. I had never heard a song like it before. What struck me the most was how written it was. If you put ‘Independence Day’ down on paper, it’s poetry. It’s so well-written. I was just blown away by it. I don’t recall or not if I ever thought it would be a single. I really wasn’t concerned with that. I just wanted to record it. Then, RCA came along, and wanted it to be a single. I was happy with that, because I felt it needed to be heard. It was an uphill battle from there. But it resonated with people that heard it. It was the first of my songs that I got letters about, back in the day when you would get fan mail. We didn’t have social media, so we didn’t have that immediate reaction to how people were responding. You just had to wait. What I knew was that from the first time I sang it, I got a standing ovation. So I knew it was going to resonate. Sure enough, it was the one. I got all of these letters from women saying ‘This is my story.’ People poured their hearts out about how it made them feel, that they weren’t the only one going through that. It was a really powerful song.

Fast-forward to the spring of 1996, and you hit the top of the charts for the first time with “Wild Angels.” Where were you when you got the news?

I remember when I got the news that it had went No. 1. I was walking through the Dallas airport, visiting radio with Mike Wilson, who was with RCA. We got off the plane, and he called somebody and told me the news. I was walking on air. It was the third album. It felt like it was never going to happen. I remember how gratifying it felt, like I had earned it. It was an amazing feeling.

In August of 1997, you release Evolution, your fourth album. That record seemed to put your career in the higher echelon. Correct?

Evolution felt like the point where everything clicked. Paul Worley and I were talking about what to name the record. He said ‘You should name it Evolution, because it really does feel like you have turned the corner. You’re solid. You’ve had hit songs under your belt, you’ve done some touring, you’re a few years older.' I had a baby at that point. People really reacted to that record.

It was around that time that you tasted your first major crossover success, with the Jim Brickman collaboration “Valentine” hitting No. 3 on the AC chart. As I understand it, there was a victim of that song’s success – your current solo record.

"Valentine" was an important record, but also something of a fluke. I was between Wild Angels and Evolution, and Jim asked me to do it. It was the first time I had worked with a different producer other than Paul. It was a one-day, three-hour session. It was interesting. He released it at the same time we had released "Cry On The Shoulder of the Road," which was my fastest moving single to date, until his people started calling about "Valentine," and everything came to a screeching halt.

You win the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award for the first time in 1999, then headline your first major tour with the Greatest Hits tour in 2002. Your next move is to release “This One’s For The Girls,” which hits No. 3 on the Country charts, but also No. 1 on the AC chart. That must have been a huge moment for you.

"This One’s For The Girls" was an immediate no-brainer for me. I loved the fact that it was up-tempo and fun, but it also had something to say. It felt like such a positive message, and it’s still one of my favorite songs to do live. It’s like a shot of energy that goes through the crowd.

You were at your commercial peak in 2004-05, when you released the covers album Timeless. Did you see that album, as successful as it turned out to be, as a risk at the time?

I never did. I just do what feels right. I’m probably a little naïve in that way. I remember wanting to do a record like that, and I was touring with Alan Jackson. He said "You should do that. Your fans would love that." Then, I went to ask [RCA label head] Joe Galante. We were at dinner party at my house, and he was getting ready to leave. I said "Hang on. I need to ask you something." I told him what I wanted to do, and he didn’t hesitate. He said "Absolutely. If that’s what you want to do." I always had a sheltered existence with my record deal. I would read these horror stories about these other artists who weren’t allowed to record what they wanted to. He was so great in that he allowed me to be an artist. He was so supportive. It was so much fun to make that record, as there was no pressure. I was still naïve enough to think that country radio would play it. I was really pregnant with Ava, my last child, and was just holed up in the studio. I got a group of musicians together who loved that music as much as I did. We just had a blast.

It’s not unusual for artists to make various business investments, but you and John’s major creation along those lines has been Blackbird Studios in Berry Hill.

Blackbird is really John’s baby. He started it because that’s been a dream of his since he was back in Kansas. He went to get a loan to start a studio back in Wichita. They wouldn’t give it to him, so he started a sound company. It came out of his passion for music. He has always said he wanted to have a place where everyone has all the colors of the pallet, and people can make whatever kind of record they wanted to make. Nobody could say "If I only had this piece of gear." He wants to make sure everyone has what they want. Also, the vibe is really important. This is one of the old-school kind of studios, where there is always someone working here, and you never know who you’re going to run into. It’s got a warm and creative vibe to it. It’s one of those classic studios like Capitol, or East/West. It really came out of his love for audio, trying to provide a place where musicians can create.

You mentioned Joe Galante at RCA earlier. You’ve also worked with Scott Borchetta on two different occasions – 2011’s Eleven and last year’s Reckless. What can you say about your working relationship with him?

Scott is a force to reckoned with. We’ve always had a great relationship because he is very supportive, and lets you create your own vision, then takes it and runs with it, and does what he can to promote it.

Touring-wise, you returned to opening act status in 2011, but for George Strait, who you worked with on his last three tours. How memorable was that?

I was floored that I got to do it for three years. We toured with him the year before the Farewell Tour, and we did the first year all by ourselves, and split up the last year with other acts. The best thing that came out of that was that I got to know him and Norma. We got to spend a lot of time with him, and he’s amazing. We sang "Jackson" and "Golden Ring" on every show. That was one of the highlights of my touring career, for sure.

You’re on the road this year with the Love Unleashed Tour. What lies ahead for Martina McBride?

We’re making a Christmas record this year, and I’m looking forward to that. I’m not interested in doing anything at this point that doesn’t inspire me creatively or soul-wise. I want to be inspired, and make a bunch of different kinds of records. I just picked up Alison Krauss’ new album, and I would love to do something like that. For me, I’m enjoying not having a record cycle, not having a super-strict mindset of whether something works at radio or not. I’m really in the best place. All of those restrictions are gone, and now I can just make music. If I want to put it out on the Internet, or give it away, make a traditional record, whatever. It’s an exciting time for me right now, a lot more freeing.

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