Two minutes into the interview, Martina McBride’s 2-year-old had already completed her painting project and just had to show Mom.
“Oh, that’s pretty, Ava,” McBride said as she held a phone at her Nashville home. “Yellow and red. You wanna do another picture?”
Juggling motherhood and music is a way of life for the country star, who takes her three daughters (ages 2, 9 and 13) on tour. (Dad, too; John McBride is a sound engineer.)
With kids or without, it’s hard for a Nashville princess to make that crowning step for music-biz royalty: headlining an arena tour. Despite six No. 1 country hits and a record-tying four Country Music Association awards as female vocalist of the year, McBride fills only half her shows.
“She’s been a formidable ticket-seller for years now, but she’s an act that developed to mid-level and never exploded like the Dixie Chicks,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert journal Pollstar. Last year, McBride drew only an average of 5,089 fans to her 55 arena shows, according to Pollstar.
Similarly, recent sensations Carrie Underwood and the Jennifer Nettles-fronted Sugarland are struggling to make that step, too.
By contrast, many male country stars sell out arenas - Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts, to name a few.
These male stars tend to be more compelling live performers, with deeper and more varied musical repertoires. Plus, female country fans - who are often the decisionmakers when it comes to buying concert tickets - apparently prefer hunky guys to a sweet-voiced sister warbling about universal truths.
Does McBride agree that it’s more difficult for a female artist to sell 10,000-plus tickets?
“That’s a really good question,” she said. “I know right now it seems particularly hard to get female artists played on (country) radio. Hit singles usually translate into ticket sales. That’s a bit of a challenge. But you can’t look at it as a handicap, and you can’t sit there and bemoan the fact. You just have to get out there and work - probably work twice as hard as a male artist - and try to get ahead.”
This wasn’t always the case. Not long ago the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Reba McEntire were packing arenas. Even though McBride can’t fill hockey and basketball buildings, she still sells more tickets than any other female country artist on tour these days.
A down-to-earth Kansas native, she has a roof-rattling voice and the most bewitching blue eyes in Nashville, but lacks the one thing indispensable for a country queen: a larger-than-life persona. There’s no hardscrabble backstory, headlining-screaming controversy or famous husband.
“I think Martina is probably the best female singer in the (country) format - or maybe in any format,” said Gregg Swedberg, program director at Twin Cities country station K102. “The vocal quality she has is beyond amazing. She is awfully good at what she does. She is as professional as any artist I’ve dealt with.”
But “professional” doesn’t mean exciting. McBride, 41, doesn’t attract as many young women - a key demographic for mass appeal - as do Underwood, 24, or Nettles, 33. And Swedberg thinks McBride has chosen some singles that have been “a little challenging for radio and polarizing with audiences.”
McBride is best known for such female-empowerment hits as “Concrete Angel” (about a child who died from abuse), “Independence Day” (about a battered wife who frees herself from an abusive husband) and “Broken Wing” (about a woman who leaves a man who kept putting her down). Still, she said it’s never been her intent “to be the voice of that.”
“When I found `Concrete Angel,’ I thought, `This is a beautiful song that needs to be sung.’ When I found `Independence Day,’ I thought it made me feel angry and passionate. When I heard `Broken Wing,’ I thought I could see these two people and I wanted to sing this woman’s story.”
Last summer McBride had a huge radio hit with “Anyway,” which is about having faith in God to guide you while pursuing your dreams. It was the first song she’d ever written.
“Songwriting is not a passion of mine or something I’ve been yearning to do for many, many years, but I finally got a chance to do it and now I want to write everything I ever record,” said the singer, who co-wrote the tune with the Warren Brothers. “I enjoyed the process and I’m proud of what we wrote - though to be honest, I don’t feel any closer to `Anyway’ than I do to (such other hits as) `Independence Day’ or `This One’s for the Girls’ or `Broken Wing,’ because I feel like they’re all mine.”
Her current CD, “Waking Up Laughing,” which features three McBride compositions, has a decidedly spiritual tone, but it wasn’t by design, she said: “I didn’t realize that until I was halfway through the album and found that `God’ is in a lot of these songs, and `faith’ and `hope.’ I’ve always recorded songs about a positive way out of a negative situation.”
With their loud, soaring choruses, those hits have given McBride a reputation as a country-music Celine Dion. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Some critics have complained about her propensity for over-the-top songs.
“It’s a Catch-22 for me,” she said. “There are people that want to hear that from me. And then there are people who are tired of hearing that from me. I have had those thoughts over the years about not trying to do too much of that. But you can’t overthink that. I never set out to look for those songs. I just listen to the song and whether the performance and lyric will move people.”
She answered her critics with 2005’s “Timeless,” her interpretation of understated country classics by Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and others.
McBride’s tastes are eclectic. The first concert she attended was Ozzy Osbourne. In her own shows, she covers Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Her older daughters have her listening to everything from R&B star Chris Brown to the Beatles to “High School Musical.” And, yes, she did take them to see Miley Cyrus in concert.
“Oh my gosh, you would have thought they were watching the Beatles with all these girls screaming,” she said. “They concluded that it was the most amazing night ever.”
McBride schedules her life around her kids, which means concerts are confined to weekends during the school year.
“It’s important to be there. I can’t imagine going out and touring for a week or two weeks and leaving them at home,’ she said. `They’ve always been included in our travels. I wanted them to have as normal a life as they could. So having them home and here for school activities and sports is important to them. We just work around it.”
Then, as if on cue, Ava shouted: “Mom! Mom!”