Martina McBride Tops Chart With Everlasting

Latest Album Features Interpretations of Classic Songs

Martina McBride’s Everlasting will debut this week at No. 1 on Billboard’s country albums chart, at least temporarily interrupting the dominance of two blockbuster albums — Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party and Florida Georgia Line’s Here’s to the Good Times.

It’s a formidable achievement for McBride, especially as the first project on her own label. She’s certainly been working hard to promote the project, including appearances on Today, The Arsenio Hall Show, VH1’s Big Morning Buzz and as part of the CMT Listen Up performance series.

Everlasting raises an interesting question, though. What’s up with Martina McBride singing covers of Little Walter, Etta James, Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Motown greats like the Supremes and Jimmy Ruffin?

With guest appearances by Kelly Clarkson and Gavin DeGraw, the short answer is that she’s continuing to explore her musical inspirations which extend far beyond the covers of Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith, Lynn Anderson and others she recorded for her 2005 all-country album, Timeless.

During an interview at CMT’s office in Nashville, McBride talked about putting together the project. In a way, this sort of seems like a long-awaited sequel to your Timeless album.

McBride: I saw similarities, definitely, when I was recording and finding songs — just the process of finding songs and the feeling of wanting to do them justice and sort of a reverence for the original.

How many songs were on your short list to record?

I went in with “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (Aretha Franklin), “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes) and “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (the Teddy Bears). … I had five or six songs that I went in with. Then (Van Morrison’s) “Wild Night” came kind sort of spontaneously. (The Supremes’) “Come See About Me,” we stumbled upon that on iTunes and went, “That’s fun. Let’s do that.”

Don Was produced the album. How long have you known him?

I worked with him a long time ago on a duet with Bob Seger on the Hope Floats soundtrack, but I don’t really remember the process of working with him. It was a long time ago, and I think I’d just had a baby, so I was probably in a fog. So I really met him, for all practical purposes, right before I made this album. I flew to L.A. to talk to him about making the record. We wanted to get together to see if we were on the same page songwise and musically. I met him for lunch. Then I went to his office, and we just listened to music all afternoon. When I left, he said, “I really want to make this record.”

Was his work with Bonnie Raitt a factor in wanting him to produce the album?

Definitely. He’s worked with a lot of people I admire, but the record he made with Bonnie — Nick of Time — was just a masterpiece. I loved that record, so he’s sort of been on my radar ever since.

Compared to producers and musicians in Nashville, does he approach things differently in the studio?

He’s very laid-back. He sits out in the room with the band. We all recorded in one room, and he was sitting out there with them listening. He’s very musical, so even though he does sometimes get meticulous, it’s not necessarily about every note being right. It’s about the feel of the thing which, to me, is just such a musical way and such a free way to making a record.

Two of the most obscure songs on the album are Fred Neil’s “Little Bit of Rain” and Etta James’ “In the Basement.”

I worked with an amazing A&R person on this record. Her name is Monica Lynch. She’s from New York. We worked for six or seven months, just sending songs back and forth.

She must have really good instincts. Most people, if they say they want to record a Fred Neil song, they’ll immediately choose “Everybody’s Talking.”

She’s really good. Scary good. Vast knowledge of all kinds of music. That song was a little bit different because it was a little more folk than soul. I loved the song when Linda Ronstadt did it with the Stone Poneys, and Amos Lee did a really beautiful version of it. The thing about this record is that you have to find songs that fit your voice and feel good.

What’s it like exposing these songs to a new audience?

My mom and dad got the record, and the first thing that came out was “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” They said, “Who did that song originally?” … They wanted to see how my version was different. When I made Timeless, I thought, “Everybody knows this music. Everybody knows ’Today I Started Loving You Again.'” And then I realized, “Oh, no. Not everybody knows this music.’ But they discovered it. When I did the Timeless tour, I looked out and saw these young kids singing along to “Rose Garden,” so it was cool.

Is it daunting to tackle a song that was originally sung by Teddy Pendergrass or Aretha Franklin?

I don’t know if “daunting” is the right word. I never felt overwhelmed that I can remember. I’ll probably look back in my journal and was completely overwhelmed about 90 percent of the time! The trick is, of course, is to not make a karaoke record. Sometimes with Timeless, I felt like I did stick so close to the originals. With this record, I think we took more liberties. You don’t want to make a karaoke record, but you also don’t want to make it unrecognizable. You have to have a reverence of the original but then try to make it your own in some way.

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.