Twenty-Four Hours on the Road With Martina McBride

Writer's Diary Provides Behind-the-Scenes Details of Superstar's Shine All Night Tour

Editor’s note: CMT.com correspondent Alison Bonaguro hopped on one of Martina McBride‘s tour buses Saturday morning (March 27) for a 24-hour roundtrip journey from Chicago to Green Bay, Wis., as part of the singer’s Shine All Night tour with Trace Adkins.

Life on the road is no bed of roses. Well, for me it was. Because I was able to enjoy all the thrills of being on the road with Martina McBride for just one day. So, for me, there were a lot of firsts and no burn-out factor. Plus, I wasn’t expected to do any heavy lifting, any guitar playing, and nobody needed me to sing. Basically, I had it easy. My bus call time was early, but other than that miserable wake-up call, it was all good.

5:30 a.m.: Get on the tour bus in a Starbucks parking lot. I think I impressed the hell out of the early-morning baristas. On my bunk (a 7-by-4-by-4 coffin-like bed) there was a note that said: “Welcome aboard!! Bathroom is #1 only. Sleep with feet to front of bus.” The first bit of advice I understood, but it wasn’t until morning that I had an explanation of the sleeping instructions. In case of an accident, the feet-front sleeping position is better for death avoidance. Good thing I took it seriously. Other non-glamorous bus realities: The sink in the bathroom was about the size of an iPhone, the bus’ thermostat is set to constant goosebumps and it’s close to impossible to walk while it’s in motion.

9:30 a.m.: Arrive at Resch Center in Green Bay. I drank about three cups of bus coffee before we even went into the venue for the real coffee. I looked outside and saw that our bus was just one of eight on the tour. It takes so many people (and so much equipment and so much coffee) to put this whole spectacle together.

10 a.m.: Watch the crew do their load-in. This means that the arena is completely empty, and this group has about five or six hours to build the entire stage and ready the seating and the lights before McBride comes out for her soundcheck. And there are so many details to consider. Like how the ramps that extend out on either side of the stage are so high that they might obstruct a portion of the crowd’s view. So Team McBride has to be ready with a more-than-adequate alternative if it appears that those fans won’t be able to see the stage. Then, as I walked out to get some breakfast (made-to-order omelets!) and look over the day’s schedule, I see there’s a round stage at the very back of the arena floor. “A/B stage,” they are calling it.

11 a.m.: Walk to box office to make sure everything is cool with the tickets, then walk through the entire backstage area to see who gets what dressing room. There needs to be enough rooms to designate one for McBride, Trace Adkins, Sarah Buxton (who’s opening the shows) and then all the band and crew members. I always assumed the stars spent most of the day on their bus, but it turns out they stay in the venue most of the day.

11:30 a.m.: Spend some time with McBride’s fiddler, guitarist and background singer Jenee Fleenor in the dressing room. She is new to the band, and when I asked her how she learned all these McBride songs in just two weeks, she said she’d been playing most of them her whole life. We agreed that this is what often happens when you’re playing for such a legend. I helped her make up a set list of songs she was going to do at the after-party.

1 p.m.: Eat lunch (and way too many deep-fried cheese curds) with McBride, her daughter, Ava, Trace Adkins and songwriter Kenny Beard. Adkins told a funny story about the show in St. Louis the night before and how he overheard a man in the front row tell his date, “I have never heard any of these songs.” McBride was looking over a wish list of birthday gifts for her daughter, Emma, and asked her manager if she’d have time to go out to do some shopping. He says it’s not likely.

2 p.m.: Go hide a couple of pairs of front row tickets at local Green Bay landmarks so McBride can Tweet about clues to fans for this ongoing scavenger hunt that’s part of the tour. I think we were being followed when we hid one pair at the Titletown Brewing Co. and another under the armrest of a Packers chair at Lambeau Field. Fans really want to be in the front row, so you have to give them credit for taking that kind of initiative.

4 p.m.: Load-in is 95 percent done, and so I tour the mechanics behind the stage. Get a lesson in how the lifts operate and how the smoke machines work. It takes a little bit of the mystery out of the show, but in a good way because I’d always wondered how all the magic happened.

4:30 p.m.: Head to soundcheck. McBride is such a natural. She just grabs the microphone and starts belting “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” a Harlan Howard classic she loved enough to include on her Timeless album from 2005. When she’s done, she casually remarks, “Well, that was spectacular.” She was just kidding, but she’s right. It was.

6 p.m.: Head to official Martina McBride Fan Club party across the street from the venue. Meet all kinds of fans who have traveled from all over Wisconsin and beyond to see this show. Hearing their stories of how a passion for McBride and her music is what brought these folks together and has bonded them for life makes me feel so proud of the effect country music has on people.

7:20 p.m.: Sarah Buxton and singer-guitarist Jedd Hughes kick off the concert with a charming acoustic set. “Radio Love” and “Outside My Window” sound great, but it’s “Stupid Boy” that gets the biggest crowd reaction. They know it as a Keith Urban song, but Buxton co-wrote it, and hearing her sing it reminds me of the power of really solid country songwriting.

7:40 p.m.: Trace Adkins takes the stage and immediately launches into his bad boy sports songs: “I Got My Game On” and “Swing.” His set jumps around from lighthearted tunes like “Hillbilly Rich,” “Honkytonk Badonkadonk,” “Hot Mama” and “Marry for Money” to the more heartfelt “Songs About Me,” “You’re Gonna Miss This” and then, with a full choir, “Muddy Water.” After he thanks the fans for spending their money to come to the show, he says, “My part of the ticket was $2. I’m a $2 act.”

8 p.m.: While Adkins is onstage, I take advantage of my all access pass and try to watch the show from every possible location in the venue. It’s a very unscientific experiment in live music appreciation. My conclusion? The sound is best from the floor seats in the center of the arena, but the view is best from the first tier of seats on the side. Unless you’re in the front row watching with your elbows on the stage. That’s good, too.

8:30 p.m.: Rush backstage for the McBride meet and greet. When did people get the idea that being last in line is the place to be? It’s hysterical watching fans jockey for position at the end of the line. Do they think that McBride will linger in the room, and they’ll just hang out forever? She does have a show to do, you know. But there’s a lot of comments such as, “You can go ahead of me” and “No, it’s all right. Seriously, I don’t mind being last.” In the end, everyone gets their picture taken with McBride.

9:15 p.m.: McBride’s crew comes out onstage and dances. They are uninhibited and goofy and quite good, and the crowd goes crazy for their, um, choreography. They leave, and McBride rises up out of the floor (with her new Joan Jett haircut, by the way) singing “Ride.” Immediately she rolls into “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues,” “Happy Girl” and “Wild Angels,” which she says was her very first No. 1 song. Then she comes clean with an honest admission about being under the weather. “I am fighting something, and it’s a struggle up here,” she told the crowd. “But I knew I had a roomful of amazing fans, so there was no way I wasn’t going to try. So I’m crossing my fingers, and I promise I will sing my heart out.” Later she does “Wrong Baby Wrong,” then a dramatic and soulful take on Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” and then a quiet acoustic cover of what she calls her favorite Kris Kristofferson song, “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”

10 p.m.: By far, my very favorite part of the night. When McBride started singing “Anyway,” that was my cue to go out into the audience at the very back of the arena and bring fans down to that B stage. Some thought they were in trouble when I gave them the “come with me” signal. But when I explained that McBride was about to do a few songs on that little stage, and they’d be right up against it, most of them started to cry. Especially when they see how she’s traveling to that stage — by sitting on a neon crescent moon that flies over the audience while she is singing “Concrete Angel.” By the time she got to that back stage, there was a crush of screaming teenagers so thick, I was having flashbacks to a recent Taylor Swift concert. She stayed there for “Love’s the Only House, “Blessed” and “I’m Tryin’,” then walked back to the front stage while singing “This One’s for the Girls.”

10:30 p.m.: After doing “A Broken Wing,” which had to be terribly hard because of the respiratory infection she was fighting, the fans give McBride a standing ovation. And she starts to cry. “Green Bay is so special to me because I sang the national anthem at Lambeau Field right after 9/11. And the emotion and power there that night is something I will never forget,” she said. And it must be so because she does her encore song, “Summer of ’69,” in a Packers jersey.

11 p.m.: Hang with McBride in dressing room. She talks about how connected she felt to the audience and what an overwhelming emotion that can be. She Tweets about that feeling, saying, “Green Bay, you were amazing last night. Thanks for hanging with me and pulling me through. Won’t forget it … ever.”

12:30 a.m.: Head to after-show jam party at a local bar called Tom, Dick & Harry’s. Watch Buxton front McBride’s band as they play an endless supply of classic rock songs. McBride herself is working the room like she’s any other regular girl. Just one who happens to also be a world-class entertainer.

1:30 a.m.: Sarah Buxton takes a break from singing and teaches me how to fix my hair in the same faux bob that she is rocking.

2:30 a.m.: Give in to the bus driver, who has given me my final warning that I must get on the bus and in my bunk — or they will leave without me. I know the rules about how you are always supposed to be the first one to leave a party, but those people were probably never at an after-party with McBride, Adkins and Buxton.

6 a.m.: Reluctantly get off the bus, back in the same Starbucks parking lot. Sad that my day on the road is over, but forever grateful that I had the chance to see how McBride shines all day and all night.

View photos from the concert.
Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.