Life -- to the beat of McBride’s tune

Times Staff Writer

When Martina McBride turns up in a couple of weeks on “American Idol” to coach contestants on the finer points of singing a country song, don’t be surprised if she starts quoting the adage that “less is more.”

The woman who has won nine trophies from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, mostly for female vocalist of the year, isn’t big on singers who like to showboat.

“There’s just no need to make one word have 25 notes; there really isn’t,” says McBride, kicking back in a leather chair behind a large desk in the office she shares with her husband, John McBride, at their Blackbird Studio here just outside of Nashville, where they also live with their daughters: Delany, 12, Emma, 8, and Eva, 21 months. “It just is really not very soulful. Sometimes it is, like with Aretha [Franklin], but even she doesn’t really do that.”

If her “AI” charges on the nights of April 17 and 18 need proof that she’s willing to put her money where her mouth is, she can spin them her new album, “Waking Up Laughing,” which hits stores Tuesday. It does include a few wall-rattling crescendos, particularly in the first single, “Anyway,” an inspirational ballad currently riding high on the country charts.


More often than not, however, McBride relies on restraint and an almost conversational delivery that establishes a more intimate rapport with listeners than singers who crank every chorus to 11, or torture syllables into submission because they can.

Overshadowed commercially during the 1990s and this decade by Shania Twain and Faith Hill, the pint-sized singer with the pipes of steel nonetheless has sold nearly 12 million albums in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. She’s racked up five No. 1 singles, including “Blessed,” “I Love You” and her first, “Wild Angels,” and is vying for yet another top female vocalist honor from the ACM, which hands out its awards May 15 in Las Vegas.

“I never think, ‘How can I show off on this song?’ Sometimes, quite honestly, when I sing something really big or powerful, it’s because that’s the only way I can get it out,” McBride says, leaning forward, elbows on her knees. “It’s not like I’m constantly trying to go for that. I love singing a song that’s soft and quiet, with lots of subtleties and nuances, just as well as I love singing something big like ‘Where Would You Be,’ ” a hit for her in 2002.

“I’m conscious of that now, having done that a lot,” says the singer, who was born 40 years ago in Sharon, Kan. “I don’t want people ... to think I’m just doing it for effect. So I probably go the other direction a little bit more now when I think about songs.”

Her maturation as a vocalist is just one part of a continuing musical evolution. She produced the new album herself, her second time calling all the shots.

After working for most of her career with producer Paul Worley, she decided to try producing on her 2004 Grammy-nominated “Timeless,” a tastefully inspired collection of country songs she grew up loving.

“I wanted to be in a position where I wasn’t dependent on someone else’s schedule and availability,” she says.

“What if I want to get up and do some work at 3 in the morning? Or if I want to keep working until 3 in the morning? It was very liberating,” she says, dressed weekday casual in a short-sleeved knit top and cargo pants, fresh from mom duty reading for Emma’s third-grade class.

For the first time, she’s also getting songwriting credits, having co-written three songs, including “Anyway,” with Brett and Brad Warren, a.k.a. the Warren Brothers.

“We were in this very room. They were sitting on the couch, and they said, ‘Would you ever sing something like this?’ And they started playing a song. I said, ‘Of course, I love it.’

“They said, ‘It needs a bridge.... We’ve got to go, so why don’t you write it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ And they left.”

That song became “Beautiful Again,” an unconventional narrative about a young girl who leaves home after a brush with an abusive relative, then maps out her own circuitous path to happiness.

“I love that girl in that song,” McBride says, “and I love the fact that even after everything she’s gone through and all the hard times, she still is determined to see the good, and to know that things do get better. But I love the little moment of doubt she has in the bridge.

“I feel like the verses and the chorus can show her story, but I feel like that bridge really shows her soul,” she says of her contribution to the song.

“She has that little moment of doubt like, ‘Dang, this is hard! Am I doing the right thing only seeing the good side? Maybe I should wallow in it a little bit.’ And then she sees her little girl and she knows she’s doing the right thing, and to me that’s her character, her soul, her spirit.”

It’s clear that McBride identifies with the optimistic outlook in that song, an attitude that permeates the Blackbird complex, where she and her family can be rubbing elbows one week with the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban and another with the White Stripes and Beck.

She’s experienced her own hard moments, as the rare female singer who’s also a producer, mentioning a magazine story she read recently that described John as her “husband/producer.”

“Now how does that happen?” she says, laughing indignantly, with John seated next to her after strolling from the office to a dining table in the studio’s communal kitchen.

It’s mild frustration -- more than surprise or outrage -- that lights up her crystalline, sky-blue eyes at the assumption that it must be a man who is in the driver’s seat when a female singer is in the recording studio.

John did work on the album, but as an engineer following her orders. He is completely clear on who’s the boss on this one.

“I might make a suggestion about something I think might work,” John says, “but as an engineer, I know better than to argue with the artist and producer.” The not-so-subtle subtext: If an engineer gets uppity, he’s liable to be replaced, wedding ring or no.

Besides, there are other McBrides around who are all too ready to put in their two cents’ worth. While they were playing back one song for their daughters, Delany ventured an opinion born out of the comfort of being around musicians all her life.

“She told me, ‘Mom, all these other people around you won’t tell you what they really think, but I will, and I don’t like those background vocals,’ ” McBride says of her little Simon Cowell-in-the-making.

“And she was right! We ended up taking them off.”