What's Martina McBride, one of the most decorated country singers of the last 20 years, doing devoting an entire album to vintage R&B, soul and rock songs?
Having a blast.
That seems to be the main motivation behind "Everlasting," her just-released studio album, which was produced by Don Was and includes covers of Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long," Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."
"Honestly," she said between bites of Asian fusion tacos at a Little Tokyo cafe while in L.A. for the Grammys, "it felt like when I did 'Timeless' [in 2005] — that was something I just decided I wanted to do: making a record for the sake of making a record. Not thinking about industry, the business, radio or singles. Every once in a while, it's good to do that, just make a record. I don't care what happens with it; I just want people to hear it."
McBride, who will make an L.A. stop for a question-and-answer session and short performance at the Grammy Museum on Thursday, remains one of country music's most powerful singers. She's taken home multiple female vocalist of the year awards from both the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, and there's often been a soulful bent to the Kansas-born singer's sound.
"If you just listen to the vocals," Was said, "she's unmistakably Martina McBride. I don't think there was ever a point where she phrased something in an unnatural way because a song might have been an R&B cover in a previous incarnation. ... I don't think there's a single Martina McBride fan who's going to be put off by the fact there's no pedal steel on the record. But it's a little risky."
Regardless, McBride is gearing up for a tour that will prominently feature the songs, which were recorded with R&B-revue-style horns and backup singers who'll be along for the live performances.
"The whole time I was recording it, I was thinking about how it was going to translate live," McBride said. "I'd heard a record by some girl — an indie artist that somebody told me about — and when I listened to it, she had so much personality, I thought, 'I want to go see her live.' And I thought to myself, 'That's the kind of record I want to make — one where people want to come see it live.'"
At 47, McBride is up against the harsh reality of country music's ever-growing slant toward twentysomething and even teenage singers, a trend that comes with a silver lining that more established artists are finding greater freedom to pursue their own vision.
"For lack of a better word, you're kind of institutionalized being on a major label for 20 years, where you get a lot of, 'This is the way we do things,'" she said. "I've always said that I've had great label partners and I never felt I was told what I could or couldn't record. … There's always been support of my artistry. But now you can put together your own team and have the freedom to do new things. It seems like there's a new business model, and a lot of people are exploring it."
"Suspicious Minds" was first on her wish list when she teamed with Was, the onetime member of alternative rock band Was (Not Was) who went on to be a much-in-demand producer for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Waylon Jennings and dozens of others.
"I did a track with Bob Seger on the  'Hope Floats' soundtrack, which [Was] produced," she said of their introduction. "It was just an instinct. I had a long list of producers we were considering, but I was sitting at the kitchen table one morning, and I landed on Bonnie Raitt and thought, 'What about Don Was?'" Was produced Raitt's multiple-Grammy-winning "Nick of Time" album. "And I just knew it. All of a sudden none of those other names made sense, and this made perfect sense."
The other guiding principle she carried through the process of making "Everlasting" was that it not be something that took a lot of work for fans to enjoy.
"I wanted to make a record that was easy, where you don't have to sit and listen to 12 new sets of lyrics and try to figure out 'What was she thinking?'"
In a statement that sounds anathema to most musicians, she added, "I don't care if it's background music, something like comfort food, in a way. I think we can use that. We're all so busy and so distracted, there's so much information. It's nice not to have to think sometimes."