McBride’s Soprano Saves Ryman Show

A dynamic, powerhouse voice like Martina McBride ’s rarely comes down the pike, and her soaring soprano saved an otherwise frustrating show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Friday night (Sept. 6).

Even in the intimate setting of a 2,000-seat historic theater, a concert experience can be diminished by well-worn stage tricks, and this four-woman show had plenty of them. As the headliner, though, McBride should know better than to shout out, “I wish we could stay here all night!” to a Nashville audience that has heard that line a million times. (Alas, they screamed right on cue.)

Plus, the blazing house lights blinded the audience after every few songs throughout the three-hour show. And nobody paid to hear their neighbors warbling, despite annoying and persistent encouragement from McBride and others, to “Sing along if you know it!” This might work in the outdoor sheds, but the exhausted audience can be readily forgiven for leaving en masse before the encore.

And that’s to say nothing of the irritating segues, such as “Do we have any Happy Girls out there tonight?” or “Sounds like we’ve got some God-Fearing Women in the crowd tonight!” (Yes, more screams.)

That said, McBride remains an astoundingly talented singer, and country fans can find few concert experiences more exhilarating than hearing the lung-busting hit, “A Broken Wing.” Even in the middle of her set, it earned her an extended standing ovation.

McBride also surprised the audience with a sassy rendition of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and couldn’t stop herself from a run-through of Patsy Cline ’s “Crazy.” Although it was refreshing to actually hear the pedal steel, McBride’s beautiful version of the classic still came awfully close to showing off than honoring a legend. She can surely be forgiven, though, for wanting to indulge on the original stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where Cline had stood.

Two of the opening acts, Jamie O’Neal and Chely Wright , do not have the track record of McBride, but they do possess a crowd-pleasing stage manner and some familiar hits.

However, with the flashing lights, smoke and throbbing dance beats before O’Neal took the stage, it would have been easy to mistake the Ryman for Studio 54. She sings with force and certainly has the chops to make it as a pop singer. Yet, nothing about her live set suggests that she has any affinity for country music’s heritage. It’s one thing when the synthesizer player steps out for a solo in the midst of a country concert, but when that synthesizer is built into the body of an electric guitar, that adds insult to injury.

It doesn’t help O’Neal’s case to interrupt her best-known hit “There Is No Arizona” with the first verse of “Hotel California,” only to swerve back to “Arizona” mid-song. And despite Linda Ronstadt’s appearance on CMT’s 40 Greatest Women special, there is no good reason for O’Neal to revive Ronstadt’s remake of Betty Everett’s “You’re No Good” when she can boast a platinum-selling debut album and a knack for co-writing her own quality pop songs.

Like O’Neal, Wright opened her portion of the show with all kinds of noise and lighting effects, before running out to sing “Wouldn’t It Be Cool?” To her credit, she can comfortably talk to a crowd, noting that it was a thrill to share the bill with Pam Tillis — who inexplicably got fourth billing — after Wright gave her a demo tape many years ago. But maybe the chatter went too far when Wright pointed out that she was not wearing Easy Spirit shoes, despite the fact that they were sponsoring the show.

After clarifying to the kids in the audience that she was not endorsing smoking, she concluded her set with “She Went Out for Cigarettes,” and her No. 1 hit “Single White Female,” which already sounds dated.

Before singing a note, Tillis joked that she was hoping for the Miss Congeniality prize for opening the show, despite her tenure in the business and positive reputation for entertaining a crowd. With seven people in her band, including three violinists at one point, Tillis’ set somehow sounded acoustic. Or maybe it’s simply disconcerting to hear country music from the 1990s without layers of electric guitars.

After her signature hit “Maybe It Was Memphis,” Tillis admitted that her dad encouraged her to record an album of his songs. “Oh Pam, don’t wait until I’m dead,” she remembers Mel Tillis saying, “Do it while I’m still alive so I can get the” — imagine the stuttering here — “money.” She nailed three songs from her current album, It’s All Relative: “Violet and the Rose,” “Heart Over Mind” and the evocative “Detroit City.”

As in most music careers, McBride may also eventually face the awkward situation of opening for someone with half of her accomplishments. Still, despite the stilted stage banter, the stunning vocalist would undoubtedly be a hard act to follow.

Set List:

Martina McBride
“It’s My Time”
“Wild Angels”
“My Baby Loves Me”
“There You Are”
“Harper Valley P.T.A.”
“When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues”
“Blessed”
“Valentine”
“Crazy”
“Happy Girl”
“Whatever You Say”
“A Broken Wing”
“Independence Day”
“I Love You”
“Where Would You Be”

Jamie O’Neal
“I Wanna Do Something Fun”
“No More Protecting My Heart”
“You Rescued Me”
“There Is No Arizona”
“Hotel California”(excerpt)
“You’re No Good”
“Frantic”
“When I Think About Angels”

Chely Wright
“Wouldn’t It Be Cool?”
“Shut Up and Drive”
“It Was”
“Jezebel”
“She Went Out for Cigarettes”
“Single White Female”

Pam Tillis
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
“Violet and the Rose”
“Heart Over Mind”
“Mi Vida Loca”
“Detroit City”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.