With an 11-piece band in matching outfits and a set list full of classic soul songs that her audience knows by heart, Martina McBride is earning rave reviews — and a few odd looks — on her Everlasting Tour.
"The first couple of shows, they were probably sitting there thinking, 'What's going on? This is crazy,'" the country star tells Rolling Stone Country, thinking back to the start of her current tour, which features four horn players, three choreographed backup singers and an overall Sixties' Motown vibe.
It's familiar music coming from the one of the most recognizable voices of any genre, yet with a stage plot unlike anything in McBride's illustrious 22-year career. With both the Everlasting Tour and her current album of the same name, the Kansas native is bringing to life a dream she's had for years: putting her own spin on some of her favorite R&B and soul classics, which range from the Supremes' "Come See About Me" and the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him Is to Love Him," to Van Morrison's "Wild Night" and Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." And while the four-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year was careful "not to make a karaoke record" and instead put her own stamp on each tune, this new project is nothing country radio would ever touch. But that wasn't her intention.
"There are women making really great music that is not getting played on the radio," McBride laments. "My answer to that was making this record…. I can't do bro country. [Laughs] I can't make a record that they will play on the radio right now, but I still want to make music. Am I supposed to just sit here and wait it out? No! You have to go out and create something. This is my creative outlet."
A big part of that creative process was staying true to the music's origins. Produced by Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones) and tracked by the singer's husband, John McBride, Everlasting was recorded in the couple's famed Blackbird Studios in Nashville with most band members recording their parts together in the same room. The simplistic production strategy allowed for the musicianship — much of it on rare, vintage instruments — to shine (yet not brighter than the incomparable vocals of the petite powerhouse).
Adding to the album's authenticity is Reggie Young, who plays guitar on McBride's version of "Suspicious Minds." He also just happened to play on Elvis Presley's recording of the song. "Don had this idea to put him on the record," McBride recalls. "Reggie came in and said, 'What do you want me to play? I can play this or I can play that… or I can just play what I played on Elvis' record.' We were all like, 'Wow, that's not something you hear every day!' So if you listen in the song, you can hear him playing that signature guitar riff."
Everlasting debuted at the top of Billboard's Top Country Albums chart — a feat she'd accomplished four times before, yet there were more hurdles to achieving this fifth pinnacle. On top of being a woman refusing to assimilate with the bro country world, McBride's risky genre-hopping was done as a newly-indie act. After 18 years with RCA Records and two years on Republic Nashville, she released the album on her own label, Vinyl Recordings.
"It was a good feeling because it was a passion project for me," she says of hearing the news that Everlasting debuted at Number One. "There was no single to drive the sales, so none of us knew what would happen with it. To have a really strong week like that is a testament to my fans. It shows the loyalty of my fans and the fact that they are willing to go on this journey with me. Whatever I do next, they are excited about it and curious. It doesn't matter what kind of record I put out."
When asked which musical road her next record might travel, McBride daydreams of one day making a gospel album, a big band & swing album and an acoustic record. However, she says those will all have to wait until after a project of originals. But she's in absolutely no hurry to rejoin the sparse ranks of terrestrial country radio staples.
"I am just enjoying this so much that I don't want to move on so quickly," says the singer of traveling in support of Everlasting. "I think I finally have a tour where everything else in my life is boring in comparison. I was on the bus going home thinking, 'I don't want to go home. I just want to keep playing shows!' There is something about this tour that is just fun."
Click here for tickets and a full list of cities and dates on Martina McBride's Everlasting Tour, which also features some of the singer's most beloved country hits.