Martina McBride Rises to the Occasion on Shine

She Steps Out of Her Comfort Zone for New Album

Martina McBride is describing a typical studio session for her new album, Shine, and explaining how changing her producer — to Dann Huff — forced her out of her comfort zone when suddenly her voice drops to a whisper.

“I’m also kind of a control freak,” she confides, “so letting go a little bit and letting him do what he does — which is brilliant — was a big step for me.”

Huff’s production credits include projects with Keith Urban, Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts, among others.

On McBride’s new album, released Tuesday (March 24), longtime fans will discover her signature sweeping vocals remains in tip-top shape, while the contemporary production neatly fits the current country radio format. And lyrically, she still balances the confident side of womanhood with the challenges of love. In an interview this week at CMT’s offices in Nashville, McBride talked about finding the characters in her songs, playing in a band as a teenager and the smartest investment a touring musician can make.

CMT: The melody of “I Just Call You Mine” really builds over the course of the song. What compelled you to record it?

McBride: I love the melody and I just love the sentiment. I think that’s something that everybody wants to hear and everybody wants somebody in their life that they can say that to. … It’s a love song. I haven’t done a lot of really vulnerable love songs, but this one, even though it basically says, ‘You’re the greatest thing ever,’ which has been said a million and two times, it said it in a way that I thought was a little bit different and fresh.

The narrator of “What I Do I Have to Do” is coming from a very desperate place. What goes through your head when you’re singing a dramatic song like that?

Usually I have to get to know the character in the song. Either I immediately relate to the character in the song, or I have to find that person. That song in particular was a little hard for me because the woman in the song is very desperate and very vulnerable, so it took me a while to wrap my head around exactly where she’s coming from emotionally. There’s a song called “Walk Away” on the record which is kind of the same way. Is she strong? Is she not strong? You have to find how to express that.

I’ve always admired the fact that you don’t sing full volume all the time. How does it benefit the song when you bring down the volume in all the right places?

I don’t know that it’s a conscious thing that I do. It’s just how I feel the song. Dynamics are really important, and I have always been kind of a dynamic singer, I think. There’s a song on the record called “I’m Tryin’,” which is really just a conversation between two people. It’s a very intimate conversation, so it needs to be what you would say when two people are in a room. It needs to be intimate. I try to find what fits the song. Sometimes the only way I can really reach those notes is to belt it, so it’s just however it comes out.

Your dad was in a band when you were a teenager. Were you in the band, too?

Yeah, I was. I played keyboards and sang. He was the lead singer. He sang most of the songs, and I sang a few numbers. I played piano, and my little brother played guitar and steel guitar and sang harmonies. It was our family thing to do. It was such a cool thing. At the time, I completely took it for granted, but I look back now and think, ‘Wow, what an opportunity to get out for people and play and kind of grow up on stage.’

What were those clubs like?

We didn’t really play bars. We played supper clubs or private clubs. … I grew up in a very small rural community. If you ever look at a map of Kansas, there are all little bitty dots on the map. It’s just made up of little, tiny towns. I mean, like towns of 100 people, then there’s a town over here of like 50 people or 200 people. So we would rent a big gymnasium and throw a party, basically, and everybody would come — all ages. They’d bring their own booze and have a big, four-hour country music dance, and we would play. That was during the Urban Cowboy craze, too, so everybody was into line-dancing and dancing.

Do you miss line dancing?

No. (laughs) I never knew how to line dance! I still don’t know how to line dance.

What do you think is the best investment for a touring musician?

No matter what you do, it still comes down to your connection with the audience, so you really have to have that. You can have all the bells and whistles, but if you can’t connect with the audience, the bells and whistles don’t matter. On my last tour, we really invested in production, as far as lighting and video, and I think fans expect to see a great light show and video when they come to a show. Remember when we used to go to shows and people were like an inch tall on stage because you were way in the nosebleed section? Well, now you can see them, and I think people really expect that.

When you’re starting a tour, are you apprehensive on how the audience will accept the new music?

I try not to play too much new material because I feel like it can get boring if people don’t know the music. But on this new album, I think I’ll probably play more of these songs. One difference on this album is that I think you respond to the songs immediately. Some of the other stuff I’ve done takes a little while to grow on you. My dad said that to me. (laughs) So maybe he’s right. But I think that these songs are more instantly likable, so I think that they’ll play better on stage.

CMT Radio’s Lindsey Roznovsky contributed to this report.