Martina McBride has been knocking out hit records for the last two decades, starting in the golden era of powerhouse country singers alongside Shania Twain and Faith Hill and Reba McEntire. But it was still difficult to break into the brutally competitive genre.
“It was a lot of two steps forward, one step back for a long time,” McBride, 49, said recently by phone. Her record label went through three singles that struggled before “My Baby Loves Me” topped the charts in 1993. “A lot of hard work went into it. From a lot of people, not just me.”
Labels today might not be so patient, even for a renowned singer. Thus the beauty of Nash Icon, a Big Machine Record Group-owned label that launched two years ago and partnered with Cumulus radio stations, ensuring veteran country artists can still get exposure and spins in a market that favors newer singers. McBride signed with the label in December 2014, along with artists including Hank Williams Jr., Ronnie Dunn and her close friend Reba.
On Friday, McBride will release “Reckless,” her 13th album and first with Nash Icon, a process that she says involved “no pressure or rush.” Co-produced by Nashville uber-producers Nathan Chapman and Dann Huff, it’s McBride’s first collection of original music in almost five years. Her album “Everlasting” in 2014 — the first independent album by a female artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart — solely covered R&B classics.
For her latest project, McBride said she wanted the process to be “old school”; instead of co-writing the tracks, she sifted through hundreds of songs submitted to her by Nashville’s songwriting community. The 10 tracks she chose are classic McBride, showing off her vocals with a mix of soaring empowerment jams (“Diamond,” with Keith Urban on vocals); serene, piano-driven slow songs (“We’ll Pick Up Where We Left Off”); and defiant tunes about making it through any horrible situation (“It Ain’t Pretty.”)
She also references some more contemporary issues when she takes on social media in “The Real Thing” (written by Ivy Walker, Sophie Walker, Hailey Whitters and Adam Wright): “Virtual friends, reality shows, put a filter on it so nobody knows — it ain’t the real thing,” McBride sings. “We’ve got cyber clouds and digital streams, sometimes I gotta shut it down.”
Despite the frustration of living life through a filter, McBride is a savvy social media user: Last spring, she was one of the first stars to speak out about the viral “Saladgate” scandal, when a radio consultant said to get better ratings, country stations should only play female artists no more than 15 percent of the time. Comparing country radio to salad, he said, “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
McBride’s Facebook post started with “Wow. … just wow.” She talked on TV about the danger of that type of gendered thinking: If labels think radio won’t play women, they won’t sign female artists, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She quickly followed with her own “Tomato Lover” T-shirts.
A year later, McBride says she thinks the dust-up ultimately brought awareness to a big problem in the genre, which has always been tougher for women.
“I think it got a lot of attention focused on something that frankly the audience probably knows nothing about, which is the fact that there are gatekeepers at radio and people that consult and decide what gets played,” McBride said. “I don’t think people were really aware of that. … I don’t know if it’s helped or not helped, but we do have some more females getting some airplay on the radio than there was a year ago.”
Thankfully, the gatekeepers don’t control every aspect of the industry — especially for a label such as Nash Icon, willing to take chances on songs that don’t blow up the radio charts.
“Radio’s still very important, but there are a lot of other ways to get your music heard,” McBride said. “It’s a different kind of world now for sure.”