Interview: Martina McBride Talks Fighting for Music With a Message, Saying No + 30 Years in Country Music
Near the end of Martina McBride's recently opened Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit sits a red T-shirt with the word "tomato" printed on it. After a radio programmer compared female artists to the tomatoes in a salad — that is, to be sprinkled into playlists sparingly — in 2015, the country star was one of the first artists to speak out against the programming theory, and began selling the shirts for charity.
Four years later, McBride took Spotify to task in her Instagram Stories, after scrolling through pages of recommendations before finding a single song by a woman. That particular incident isn't part of Martina McBride: The Power of Her Voice, but it is one example of how the singer has supported and empowered women throughout her nearly three decades in the music industry.
McBride's first Top 5 single, in fact, was "My Baby Loves Me": a song written by Gretchen Peters that models, quite simply, a healthy, equal relationship. "He thinks I'm pretty, he thinks I'm smart / He likes my nerve and he loves my heart ... My baby loves me just the way that I am," McBride sings in the chorus — not a groundbreaking idea, but a song that laid the groundwork for future singles, such as 2011's "I'm Gonna Love You Through It," in which a man promises his wife unconditional love and support as she is diagnosed with and goes through treatment for cancer. That song, too, earned a spot in the country radio Top 5.
In between those songs, McBride scored hits with songs including "Wild Angels," "A Broken Wing" and, of course, "Independence Day" — another Peters-penned song, which chronicles how a woman being abused by her husband burns down her family's home to escape the relationship, a story told from her daughter's perspective. A forthcoming double LP, Greatest Hits: The RCA Years, collects 24 of them, and is due out on Aug. 20.
McBride won't technically celebrate her career's 30th anniversary until next year, but she's been playing music since she was a young child: first, with her family band, the Schiffters (McBride's maiden name is Schiff), then, with a rock band called the Penetrators. A judging sheet from a 4-H competition now on display at the Hall of Fame proves that, even back then, she had star potential, with the judge praising young McBride's stage presence and connection with her audience.
Still, McBride didn't jump right from childhood gigs to trying to "make it" in Nashville. That decision is where a recent conversation with the singer begins:
You performed plenty as a child, but you were in your early 20s before you moved to Nashville to pursue music as a career. Do you see yourself as methodical, and how has that trait helped you as you've moved through life?
That's a good question. I am — yeah, I am pretty methodical [laughs]. I do really think things through most of the time; anything I react to immediately is either a hard yes or a hard no. There's a lot of a lot of things I have to think about, and how it affects my family and how it affects the people around me and the people that work with me and all of it.
So, I think it's served me well because, you know, the decisions that we make — some of the ones that even seem small — they do have a ripple effect. From song choices to deciding which tour days to take and how to do the tour and all of the choices in life, I think we all benefit from taking a moment.
You know, I'm learning as I get older that it's okay to say no. You don't always have to explain yourself — it doesn't have to be "no" with an explanation; sometimes, it can just be "no" ... Taking care of ourselves and taking care of the people around us shouldn't come at the expense of just saying yes to everything. Sometimes we have to just say no and think things through, or just slow down, take step back, see the big picture.
"I'm learning as I get older that it's okay to say no. You don't always have to explain yourself ... sometimes, it can just be 'no.'"
Were those decisions ever hard for you to make? Do you look back at all and go, "Oh, I might have done that differently now"?
No, I see it as a benefit, because I have three really healthy, well-adjusted children who are happy and who always knew that they were a priority.
Looking back, I mean, we turned down a lot of work. I turned down a lot of work in the UK and in Europe — overseas touring — and some television shows that would have had me have to be on location for weeks and weeks at a time. So, there were opportunities that I turned down, but I don't regret any of it, and I have the career that I was supposed to have, that I was meant to have, that I chose, so I feel good about it.
I can see your methodical nature in the songs you recorded and released, especially as singles: Many of them really put women at the forefront, in a positive, supportive, empowering way. Who was modeling that for you when you were growing up?
My mom was a really strong woman — she was very no-nonsense and very strong — and both of my grandmothers were very strong women. So, I mean, I think I was raised with that example.
And then — I don't know, I think some of it is nurture, some of it is innate, some of it is growing up in a small community where I was very simultaneously safe and accountable. I feel like we grew up kind of with a strong sense of community and looking out for each other — accountability. In the town of 180 people or 200 people, there's no getting away with anything. So I just think all of that contributed to it.
Was there anything about the way you brought up, or something you experienced, in particular that made releasing music with a message a priority for you?
I'm sure there has been. I mean, I'm drawn to those songs for a reason, [but] I don't know that I've analyzed it or figured out why, necessarily.
I always just wanted to tell a great story. I wanted to sing songs that people could relate to, that maybe made them feel like they had a song about what they were going through in their life, or what someone else was going through — that they could take that song and find some strength and support in it, and power.
And I don't know where that comes from. I never really sat and thought about it too much.
"I always just wanted to tell a great story. I wanted to sing songs that people could relate to, that maybe made them feel like they had a song about what they were going through ... that they could take that song and find some strength and support in it, and power."
You had to fight for "Independence Day," in particular, to get played on country radio, and the song still peaked just outside the Top 10. It's a battle that people — women, in particular — have fought before you and are still fighting now: to get music with strong and important messages on air. Why do you think that's such a continued issue?
I don't know. When I look back and think about the things I got away with at country radio, it's really remarkable when you look at my catalog of hits, like "Concrete Angel" and "Broken Wing" and "Independence Day" and "Love's the Only House" and "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" ... even "Whatever You Say," "Where Would You Be." I don't really know that those songs would get played today ...
Not that it was not a struggle sometimes, but it just comes down to perseverance, passion for your music and what you want to say. Also, I had an unbelievable team behind me; I had a great promotion staff and a great record company and great executives. And so, I was lucky. I look at some of the girls today that are so talented and are having to fight so hard because they don't have that machine behind them necessarily.
And with the resistance — yeah, I don't know why. You know, for me, country music has always been a bit about substance, it's been about relatability, it's been about real life, you know? So I like to think of country music as a kind of broad landscape of many different topics and many different points of view and many different things to say, and it seems it's gotten distilled down to a little bit of a one-note, one-perspective thing right now, but hopefully, that'll pass.
You mentioned the strong team behind you. Did you let them do the fighting for songs at radio, or did you step in? How did that play out?
"Independence Day" was probably the first song that we put out that met any real resistance, and it was a fight. And I did fight for that song: I called radio program directors and music directors myself and said, "What's up? Why aren't you playing this song?" And I don't know that that had been done before, but I was really passionate about it, and just really want to understand why. Looking back, I guess I felt like I wasn't going to accept a unilateral kind of no. It's like, if you're going to not play my song, you're going to have to tell me why and be accountable for it; you can tell me why, and then we can have a conversation, and if you have a good point, I'm all about fairness. So, that one was a fight.
And, it took us a while to get on a roll. I always say that I had, kind of, two steps forward at radio, and then we'd have a step back — we'd have a song that would not reach the Top 20, and then we'd have a song that went all the way to No. 2 ... so it took us a while. I never really was the kind of artist that got, like, an automatic pass. We had to work really hard for every spin.
Sara Evans has mentioned a similar experience. Do you think it was that you were women, or was it something else?
Well, no, because that was an era where women were having a lot of success, and we had a lot of women artists ...
I really think that it's — you know, the way we used to work records [laughs] back in the old days was, we built relationships. I just kept showing up, you know? I kept showing up, I kept releasing these songs, I kept making records, I kept touring, I kept doing the meet and greets and kept doing the radio station visits. And, eventually, you get enough collateral built up where you have enough relationships and enough, like, "Oh, we like her, and she is talented, and she does have these songs, so we're going to give it a chance."
But, like I said, it was definitely never taken for granted. It wasn't something that I was like, "I'm gonna put out the song and it's gonna go straight to No. 1." I never had that. I think if you talk to any woman artist, really, back in that era, you'll find the exact same answer, whether it be Wynonna [Judd], Faith [Hill]. Maybe Shania [Twain] — Shania kind of had that moment where whatever she put out was going to be successful. And they were great songs, but she had that kind of rocketship to start 'em that some of the male artists had, to be frank.
It's really interesting to hear your perspective on that, because now, we glamorize that era as a sort of golden era and talk about all of these powerful women they were playing, but you had to work just as hard. Did you feel like it was that "golden era" when you were in it, or is that just nostalgia at work?
[Pauses] Yeah, I think it did [feel like that]. It was when country music was really growing, and you could feel that growth for sure. You could feel it with the album sales, you could feel it with ticket sales, you can feel it with the way it was represented on television, and we had songs on soundtracks, and it was just kind of an era where country music was being celebrated. And females were a big, big part of that with crossover success — like when Faith had "Breathe."
And so, yeah, it felt really good. I mean, it was a lot of hard work, but it did feel like something special was happening.
I think the changes you were all seeing were happening across the industry as a whole at that time, too. Did you have to work to steady yourself during it all, or was it easy to work through it and not get caught up in it?
Well, I remember having a conversation with Joe Galante, the head of my label at the time, about crossing over. And I remember saying to him, "What makes you think I want to cross over?" Because I think I was — at the time, I don't know if I understood my reasoning behind it. I think I was just thinking I was being loyal to country music. But looking back with perspective, now I feel like I was terrified that I was going to lose control of my life if I had commercial crossover success.
That's a powerful thing, to have a song cross over, but it's also a slippery slope.
For me, because ... I did have young children, and all of those decisions, as we spoke about earlier, did affect my family. So I think I made decisions sometimes a little small because I didn't want to propel them into something that I couldn't protect them from, you know what I mean?
But none of it feels out of character for you. I don't think you ever strayed from who you were in the public eye. Looking back, do you feel like you always maintained that control?
I do; I really do. And I think that's one reason why I've had the longevity that I've had, because I feel like I was always really very hands-on with everything that I did, which drove a lot of people crazy — especially men [laughs]. The men in my career were not happy about me being so involved with every decision and wanting to be informed.
I always said, like, the video director, the photographer that shoots the album cover, the producer that helps me make the record — all of these people will move on to other projects. But I'm sitting here with this piece of work that has to stand the test of time, and it also has to feel authentic to who I am, right?
It has your name on it.
Yeah, so I feel like authenticity — if I was going to give any young artist any advice ... I would say: You being hands-on and being involved in the decisions — especially the artistic decisions — that create your legacy is so important, because it's not going to feel authentic any other way. And I feel like people innately feel when something is inauthentic and when it's authentic, and that's what I think keeps people coming back, because they start to trust that what you're putting out there is really you and they're getting a piece of you, and that contributes to the longevity of a career.
"You being hands-on and being involved in the decisions — especially the artistic decisions — that create your legacy is so important, because it's not going to feel authentic any other way."
You talked earlier about turning down some opportunities, but you've done cookbooks and a cooking show, you do charity work, and you have your podcast — all of which go back to contributing to that authenticity of who you are publicly. Do you see ways that those non-music projects help you creatively, musically speaking?
Not really. I don't know that they helped me musically.
It's weird — My whole career, I've been asked questions like that, saying, like, "Now that you've had your daughters, how does that affect your music?" and all these things, and for some reason, I don't have the capability right now, at this point in my life — and I've never had it — to really stop and think how my life circumstances affect my music. It feels all rolled into one and, at the same time, very separate ...
The way I create a cookbook is so different from the way I create a musical piece, even though it's still me and it's probably very similar, but in my mind, cooking has nothing to do with creating music, even though they're both nurturing and they're both connection ...
I feel so lucky that I'm able to follow these two passions. Most people get painted into a box. And it's still hard for some people to care about my other passions as well, but they still want to, luckily, hear me sing. So I don't take for granted that I have been able to have these two amazing creative outlets and things that I'm passionate about.
Next year will be 30 years since you released your first singles and debut album. What's in store for that big anniversary, and for this new decade of your career?
Well, I hope to make another record. I'm just now kind of getting into a headspace where I can feel inspired. I really have a hard time making music out of necessity, so I just haven't felt it ... I'm just now starting to feel kind of like, "Oh, maybe I want to get back in the studio and record." It would be so much fun if it was kind of a prolific period of time where I could go in and do a lot of music.
And I want to do another cookbook, because that's just fun for me. And I've cooked a lot during quarantine, so I have some new recipes to share. And I want to tour as long as people want to come out and see me ... I'm really excited about a new podcast we're developing that kind of marries food and music and how they're related ...
So, yeah, I mean, there's a lot of projects out in the works that are kind of in their baby stages right now, but I'm excited to get back in and get creative.
Can you pinpoint what inspired your desire to start making new music again?
My voice is feeling really good, and that's always helpful. And just coming out of this [pandemic] — fingers crossed! — coming out of a period of time and feeling like ... for me, personally, in some ways, it was so fulfilling and relaxing, and the first time that I was actually "allowed" to take some time away and not feel like I always had to provide some kind of answer or project or something. Somebody, for my whole life, has been asking me for something — to produce something, to perform something, to be performative, to do all these things — and all of a sudden, I had permission to not do anything. And it was kind of like, "Wow, this is kind of nice." [Laughs]
And so, taking a step back from everything really allowed me to appreciate it more, I think, and be like, "There's things I still want to do." So, yeah, I think just the time away helped my headspace a lot.
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