Editors note: Award-winning music writer Robert K. Oermann delves into the behind-the-scenes stories surrounding country’s biggest stars — past and present — in his new book, Behind the Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales of Romance and Tragedy. Martina McBride, one of the Opry’s brightest stars, is profiled in the following chapter, “Small-Town Gals.”
Every marriage is a partnership, but Martina McBride’s is something more.
Martina’s husband John McBride is her sound engineer, both in the studio and on the road. He also co-manages his wife’s career (along with the Canadian Bruce Allen). He is her constant companion and biggest cheerleader. They live together, work together, raise children together, and tour together.
“We’ve always had a relationship where we have been able to relate on a lot of different levels,” comments Martina. “I think it surprises a lot of people. I don’t think a lot of people really understand it until they see us together.
“John and I have a great sense of respect for each other. I really respect his talent, and he respects my talent. We have different talents, but they complement each other. We spend every day together in the studio making a record, and we go home. We’re just together a lot.
“He’s the one person I can trust to be really honest with me. He doesn’t try to butter me up or pat me on the back. I mean, he gives me praise when things are good, but I need somebody to give me the bottom line.
“He’s my favorite person in the world to be with. He has such great instincts. Really, he’s just amazingly talented. . . . He’s wonderful.
“John is actually probably a bigger music lover than I am,” Martina adds. “I like quiet. I’m like, ’Turn that radio off. Let’s have some peace and quiet around here.’ He just lives, eats, and breathes music. He approaches it from a real heartfelt place. Whereas I’m probably a little more clinical when it comes to my producing. So it’s a really great combination.
“His enthusiasm is priceless. He just immerses himself in everything he does. That’s the way he is. So we are very different, but it ends up working out.”
“It’s interesting,” agrees John McBride. “Martina and I work together, and we spend a lot of time together. I hope I can give her a comfort level in the studio, do a great job for her that makes her happy, so that she doesn’t have to think about anything except making music.
“She is the best friend and the best partner I could ever have. No question about it. She’s the most stable, rational person I’ve ever met in my life, which drives me insane. I’m a wreck, normally. I’m a passionate guy, and I burn a little hot.
“Martina’s not nearly as competitive as I am. She doesn’t worry about awards and how many records she sells. She just loves music. She loves singing and performing, and that’s why she does this. I am the more competitive one. I worry about it more than she does.
“The longer we’re together, I’m thinking I’m getting a little more like her, and she’s getting a little more like me. We’re able to do this work together.”
John is eight years older than his wife. In the beginning of their relationship, he was the “big-city sophisticate” living in Wichita, Kansas, a town of 300,000. Martina, by contrast, hails from tiny Sharon, Kansas, population 250. Her high school graduating class contained ten of the town’s residents.
“We grew up on a farm. There was nothing to do. We had three channels on the TV, one of which was fuzzy, so we had two channels. No video games. No running down to the Quick Trip or the convenience store. No playing with neighborhood kids. It was just us, really. We’d come home from school, and we were isolated on the farm. So we always had musical instruments. Our playtime was sitting around making music and singing and playing together.
“The Shiffters were a band that my dad had ever since I can remember. There was always rehearsing in the living room and music around us all the time. I started singing in the band when I was about seven years old. We would play wedding dances, VFWs, American Legion halls, and things like that.
“It was our family thing to do. My mom ran the soundboard. My dad played guitar and sang. I played keyboard. My brother played guitar. We worked our way up to where we were playing four-hour dances every Saturday night. It was just a lot of fun. I did that all through, until I graduated from high school.
“I was singing Reba McEntire, Juice Newton, Patsy Cline, Jeanne Pruett, Connie Smith. My dad would teach me the [country] standards, and then I would pick up whatever song was on the radio. Linda Ronstadt — I was a big fan of hers. The area where I’m from is pretty rural, so country music wasn’t uncool at all.
“I was always encouraged, had a real optimistic outlook and always believed this could happen if I was in the right place at the right time. I was raised to believe in myself. It was pretty ideal.”
There was never any question in Martina’s mind that she wanted to make music her profession. After graduating high school, she moved to Wichita, where she sang in a rock band called The Penetrators. Martina was so innocent, she didn’t grasp the sexual innuendo of the group’s name.
“I was pretty naïve. I went to a big city and realized that you can’t trust everybody. You have to lock your doors, and everybody isn’t always what they say they are. It was real new for me, because where I was from, everybody knew everybody. Everything was so down to earth. So I guess we were real sheltered.
“Most of what I remember about those days is traveling around in a van with a hole in the floor and having no money. I’d go into these little dives and scream my head off singing Pat Benatar. It was a good experience, but I don’t miss it at all.”
She formed a second band called Lotus, driving them around in a converted ambulance.
“She was trying to put together a band to travel around,” recalls John McBride. “That’s when we met. I had a rehearsal hall, and she rented it. Of course, she didn’t pay me, so I had to track her down.”
She didn’t pay because she couldn’t. The band was falling apart. Martina began telling her troubles to John, who was living in the warehouse rehearsal hall. To her shock, she realized she was falling in love with him.
“Here I was, crying on his shoulder about my band not coming together, and I thought, ’I’m in love with this guy. This is crazy. He lives in a warehouse.’ ”
After taking time off to heal her rock-ravaged vocal chords, Martina returned to singing country music. She and John married on May 15, 1988. Their romance began the couple’s round-the-clock togetherness.
“Actually, I can’t imagine it being any other way,” says Martina. “I mean, for us it’s real natural. We both live, eat, and breathe the music business. For a long time, I never thought I would get married, because I didn’t think I could ever find anybody that was so involved and supportive, and could understand what this business is all about, all the traveling and everything. But when I found John, it just clicked. We’re just like a really great team.
“He started his sound-system business with two speakers and a mixing board and two microphones. He built it up from there and was trying to run it out of Kansas, which is not exactly the musical center of the universe. It was kind of hard, but we both looked at each other one day and said, ’If we really want to pursue this in a big way, we really need to move [to Nashville].’ So three months later [in 1990], we packed up everything in a long trailer and moved.
“I always knew John would do well. He moved here with nothing and has really built up a huge company.”
In Kansas, John had toured with such rock bands as Steppenwolf and Bad Company. In Nashville, he found work at once as a sound man and went on the road with Charlie Daniels, Ricky Van Shelton, and other country stars. Martina waited tables and bided her time. John soon built up his sound company to one of the most prominent in the U.S. touring industry, with his gear on the road with dozens of top stars. When John became Garth Brooks’ production manager on a 1991 tour, Martina went along to sell T-shirts.
“It was an easy job,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I’m telling you what, when people hit that door, they were ready to BUY T-shirts and hats and all that stuff.”
Back at home, John continued to badger Music Row and local clubs about his wife’s singing talent. Finally, he struck pay dirt. “I heard that they were looking for a new female artist at RCA,” recalls Martina. “I went and bought a big, bright purple envelope and put in the tape and a bio and a picture. At RCA they have this sign that says ’No unsolicited material.’ That means that they don’t take anything that they haven’t requested. So — actually this was John’s idea — he took a big pen and wrote ’Requested material’ on the envelope and dropped it off. And it got through! They called us about three weeks later, and then we did a live showcase for them.”
RCA Records introduced her in 1992 with the singles “The Time Has Come,” “That’s Me,” and the devastating anti-alcohol ballad “Cheap Whiskey.” Martina sang its chilling lyrics with incendiary force. Her harmony vocalist was Garth Brooks, and when she went out on Garth’s 1992 tour, she graduated from merchandising to being the superstar’s opening act. Her powerful voice and striking song choices impressed more than a million fans on the road that year.
“I get people in interviews who ask me all the time, ’So they let you pick your own songs?’ I didn’t really know how things were done, so I just kind of barged in and said, ’These are the songs I want to do.’ Maybe that kind of helped me.”
“Martina picked those songs,” says her proud husband. “No one else picked them. She made all the decisions, because she’s got such a strong sense of what she wants.”
“I was so concerned about being taken seriously,” Martina explains. “I didn’t want to be a fluffy ’girl singer.’ I think the material that I pick is very strong-woman material.”
Many of her hits have reflected her happy private life — 1995’s “Safe in the Arms of Love” and “Wild Angels,” 1997’s “Valentine,” 1998’s “Happy Girl,” 1999’s “I Love You,” and 2001’s “Blessed.” But many others have striking, socially conscious lyrics, such as the 2002 anti-child abuse song “Concrete Angels,” “Anyway,” which Martina co-wrote, and her powerful anthems against domestic violence: “A Broken Wing” (1997) and, unforgettably, “Independence Day” (1994).
“I love lyrics that ring true and that are honest. Something that kind of opens your eyes and opens your heart and makes you want to do something to make a difference. I think the songs I sing should stand for what I believe. I like to sing songs that portray people, and especially women, with dignity, strength, and respect.” Most of these songs were accompanied by striking videos. Martina’s luminous, ice-blue eyes and chestnut hair are highly photogenic. And everyone was struck by the larger-than-life voice coming from that petite 5-foot 4-inch, 100-pound frame. By 1993–1994, she was a star.
The transition did not come easily for her. Offstage, Martina is a shy woman who doesn’t make small talk easily. Onstage, she gradually warmed to her audiences and began to relax. One recurring gag in the early days came when she’d introduce the guitar player in her band: “This guy and I slept together for about four years,” she’d say.
“Then we got rooms of our own.” It was, of course, brother Marty Schiff, who remains in his sister’s band to this day.
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about myself,” Martina comments about her reserved, introverted nature. “John is much more of a people person. We get in a cab, and I just sit back and look around. John’s like, ’So how long have you been driving a cab? What’s going on?’ By the time we get to the hotel, he’s made fast friends with the cab driver. It’s amazing.
“Sometimes we’ll go to a business dinner, and he’s kind of my secret weapon. He takes a lot of the pressure off of me.”
On October 14, 1995, Martina was invited to be on the Grand Ole Opry on the night the show celebrated its seventieth birthday. No one told her that her time onstage was to be brief. She sang too long, which meant that the cast’s “Happy Birthday” singing couldn’t air on the televised portion of the show. When other stars criticized her, she burst into tears. Backstage, she was comforted by Jeanne Pruett.
Nevertheless, Martina was invited to become a member of the Opry cast. On November 30, 1995, she was inducted by the legendary Loretta Lynn. Loretta has subsequently “adopted” Martina and taken her under her wing.
“I love her,” says Martina of Loretta. “She’s amazing to me. What she’s done is opened herself up to me. I’ll find myself in a corner with her, and her just telling me all this stuff. Does she do this to everybody? I’ve got to remember it all. It’s unbelievable.
“Becoming an Opry member was the most thrilling moment of my career. I’ll try to make the Opry proud and do my best to continue the tradition of country music and the tradition of the Opry.”
Despite her increasing stardom, Martina retained her humility and stuck to her small-town values. Motherhood, not her career, is her main focus. Martina schedules her tours and her promotional appearances around her daughters’ — Delaney, Emma, and Ava Rose — schooling and schedules.
“That just seems to make the most sense to me. Being a good mom, that’s important, definitely. As long as you have that priority set, then it all just kind of takes care of itself. I feel like I’m successful and I’m happy. I don’t have a desire to be the world’s biggest superstar. I’m happy with my life just the way it is. I want to be able to go to the grocery store. I want to be able to raise my kids in a way that’s sane and normal.
“I really wouldn’t want to have this immediate kind of superstardom that so many acts have. You’d have to put everything in your life aside, and I can’t do that. I have a family that I adore. I won’t make those sacrifices. I don’t care enough about being a big star to do that. I can’t imagine these people who can’t even walk down the street. I don’t have the desire to be on the cover of every magazine. Maybe I’m just lazy.”
John disagrees. He says his wife’s career has been the result of determination, a solid work ethic, and a continuous drive for self improvement. In 2005, Martina began producing her own records, a rarity for a woman in country music.
“Martina is very, very hands-on,” says John. “Starting with her second album, she received a coproducer credit, and she took that very seriously. She did at least 50 percent of the work. Her ears are incredible. She hears better than anyone I know. She knows what she wants, and she’ll work and work and work until she gets what she wants.
“Martina has really built her career the old-fashioned way. She came out with her first album, which did okay but not great overall. The second album, she had a little more radio success and a few more hits. The third album, she finally got her first number one. She’s really had to fight every inch of the way.
“The first time that Martina received the Female Vocalist of the Year award [in 1999] was a magical, magical night. Of course, I felt like she should have gotten it the previous five years in a row. As a matter of fact, I think I threatened that if she didn’t win, I was going to light myself on fire and run out of the auditorium. Thank God that never happened.”
Martina was also named the Country Music Association (CMA) Female Vocalist of the Year in 2002, 2003, and 2004. She and her idol Reba McEntire are the only stars who have won this award four times. The two women costarred in the landmark, all-female country tour Girls’ Night Out in 2001, alongside Sara Evans, Jamie O’Neal, and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. It came about because of Martina’s experience on the road with female pop stars in the 1998 Lilith Fair tour. She approached Reba about creating something similar for country music’s women.
“That Lilith Fair experience was life-changing for me,” says Martina. “I never knew a tour could be like that, with all that camaraderie. The whole vibe was really cool.” Girls’ Night Out was just as much fun, she reports.
Behind the scenes, John’s star was rising just like his wife’s. He built Blackbird Studio and an accompanying equipment-rental business in Nashville. The facility is now one of the top studios in America, hosting sessions for country and pop stars alike. The complex also houses the McBrides’ song-publishing business. Naturally, Martina records there, with John engineering by her side.
“My husband doesn’t do anything halfway,” says Martina. “He is passionate about audio. Blackbird Studio has a great vibe. It’s got a great energy about it that everybody comments on when they come to work here. It’s really palpable. You can just feel it when you walk in.”
“They built a paradise where we all get to hang out and make music,” comments producer/guitarist Paul Worley. “John is there to help Martina and support her on the roller-coaster ride of being an artist. And she has been there for him as he’s built his own dream, this wonderful, wonderful studio. Kudos to them.
“John and Martina, they’ve got the most wonderful relationship of any man and woman together I’ve ever seen. They both have huge dreams and huge lives. They pursue their dreams, and they don’t get in each other’s way. I hope it goes on forever.”
“It’s an unconditional kind of love,” says Martina McBride. “It’s really rare. I feel lucky that I found it.”
Copyright 2008. This article is used with the permission of Hachette Book Group and Robert K. Oermann. All rights reserved.