About two years ago, a feral cat started showing up on Martina McBride’s back porch in Nashville — it would come by here and there, plopping down and rubbing its black fur on the patio. But then McBride noticed it kept returning, again and again.
“I tamed her,” McBride says, before instantly correcting herself. “Rather, she allowed herself to be tamed.”
Understanding that nuance is true to exactly who McBride is as an artist. For 30 years, since signing her record deal with RCA in 1991, she’s sung stories that chart the complexities and challenges of womanhood and humanity at large: tackling domestic violence and abuse in “Independence Day,” “A Broken Wing” and “Concrete Angel”; the difficulties and gifts of motherhood on “Teenager Daughters”; and the inequities (and privileges) of just getting by on “Love’s the Only House.” The bulk of those songs, along with hits like “This One’s for the Girls,” appear on her new release Greatest Hits: The RCA Years Double LP, which celebrates a career built on longevity and honesty. Even the Country Music Hall of Fame has taken note, opening a new exhibit called “Martina McBride: The Power of Her Voice.”
McBride started performing at eight with her family band, the Schiffters, in rural Kansas. After moving to Nashville in 1990, she went from selling Garth Brooks T-shirts at the merch counter to performing as his opening act in arenas across the country. It was with songs like Gretchen Peters’ “Independence Day” that she found her lane as a power vocalist and truth-teller, as well as a committed advocate for domestic violence survivors. And her first Number One hit “Wild Angels,” which includes the sound of her baby daughter laughing, showed her to be a woman who never tried to hide motherhood in favor of bigger success. She’s also been repeatedly vocal about country music’s gender disparity, infamously selling a shirt that read “Tomato” in response to a country radio executive’s remark about women in the genre.
“It’s important to have songs that have a wide range of subjects,” McBride says, “because music is one of the ways we can change the consciousness.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame recently launched your dedicated exhibit, which looks at your career from the very beginnings. Like your songs, it’s both about the power of your voice as well as the power of the female voice and female storytelling in general.
That’s what I loved about it. I spent my whole career singing songs that lift women up and portray them with a lot of strength and power, so I thought that was a really cool approach. It’s really fleshed out and comprehensive, and they did a cool job with it.
How does it feel to reflect on that journey — from fighting for songs that tackle difficult subjects like “Independence Day,” to lobbying for gender parity on the airwaves, to your work with victims of domestic violence? Do you feel like you have become an advocate, of sorts?
I never really thought about it in those specific terms. But I always thought it was really important to be hands-on with my career, and certainly song selection – I just wanted to be authentic and real and I also felt like it was important to use my music to give back. I didn’t set out to find “Independence Day,” but it came to me and really brought up all these feelings and a passion that I wanted to make a difference. And it’s nice to look back to a simpler time. I was talking with a friend last night about how the music industry is so different now, and I am so grateful to have come up in a time when it was so robust and healthy. I can’t imagine starting out now as an indie artist.
The genre has been in a pretty strange place lately, especially as it’s become quite difficult to find songs of true substance on country radio. Add that to such a polarized climate, and are you worried that future songs like “Independence Day” might not be able to find their place in the ecosystem?
I hope not, because one of the things I love about country music is that it’s very direct and about real-life experiences. And as I have said in the past, when it’s a male-dominated format, we are only hearing one side of the story — it’s so important for young girls to not only hear that on the radio but also just to be represented, like somebody is singing something that is important to them. I never thought of it like it’s our responsibility to change the culture, but it is, and songs can awaken feelings and points of view and thoughts in people.
Not unlike the Nineties, when women ruled the country charts, it feels like so many of the people making music who push the genre forward from a storytelling perspective are women, like Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton, Margo Price, Miranda Lambert…
Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it? I don’t know what that means exactly and I don’t want to generalize, but I think it comes back to having a point of view that is unique and a life experience that is different. We all benefit when that is represented. I’m all about having a good time and using music as an escape, and not everything has to be heavy, but it’s just nice to have a bit of balance, some other sonic landscapes.
“Do you really want to spend your whole career not speaking out about things that are important to you just because you don’t want somebody to be upset?”
You haven’t shied away from being direct with your fans on social media, either. After George Floyd’s murder and Blackout Tuesday, some country artists just posted a black square on social media or resisted any sort of discomfort that might come with thinking deeply about their own white privilege. But your Instagram post directed your fans to action.
Well, my kids have taught me a lot. We have had some great discussions, and at the end of the day you have to speak your truth. Do you really want to spend your whole career not speaking out about things that are important to you just because you don’t want somebody to be upset? They’re going to be upset either way, and I would rather have people in my circle who are likeminded or at least open enough to be in a discussion. It’s not always easy, but the right thing isn’t always easy.
October was Domestic Violence Awareness month, a cause and mission to which you have made a full-bodied commitment over the course of your career. How does the climate feel now, versus when you started doing this work?
Nobody wanted to talk about it back then, because a lot of stations wouldn’t even play [“Independence Day”]. It’s hard to quantify, but I feel like people are more comfortable talking about it. There are some good things that social media has brought and one is an awareness of things that were taboo to talk about, like mental health, as Simone Biles did at the Olympics. The climate is more open and there is more support and awareness.
Who is making you most hopeful about the future of country music these days?
I don’t keep up with current stuff as much as I should, but Maggie Rose, Shelly Fairchild, Maren [Morris] and Kacey [Musgraves] and Brandi Carlile — I’m just so over the top about her and what she has done. I love that she is so unapologetic, and I really respect and revere what she is doing. It’s not a gimmick, it’s just “here I am,” and it’s a great example for women who are coming up to just do it and do it joyfully.
So are you thinking about making new music at the moment?
I’m always thinking about new music. I’ll be honest, I have enjoyed the break. I don’t want to say that insensitively, as it was a terrible time for a lot of people, but mentally it was so hard being in the grind all the time. So I am still trying to figure out how it all impacted me creatively. Some days I feel so inspired and some days I just want to have a glass of wine and chill and listen to the birds. But I’d love to make some new music, and I am in a place where I am not chasing commercial radio so I have the freedom to be really prolific and make all kinds of music.