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Martina McBride's Songs Inspire a New Generation of Country Singers

Photo Credit: Sony BMG Nashville

In one fell, sweet-voiced swoop, Martina McBride gives voice to the struggles of women in contemporary times.

Martina McBride’s latest single, her 50th, is a humorous, sweet ode to “Teenage Daughters” and how they drive parents to drink. The song’s mothering tone should feel familiar – it’s the empathetic attitude she’s had towards her characters since the start of her career. When she sings, “oh my God / she’s got a car / swears they won’t go far tonight / wish I believed them”, it’s funny, both because of the lack of certainty in it, coming from someone who often sings as the wise storyteller, and because of how many time she has sung, in a more serious way, about women running away from home.

On her nine albums, McBride has consistently included songs that chronicle the disintegration of families and relationships, with people escaping bad, even brutal situations and learning to move on and heal. They’re seldom, maybe never, issue songs about “abuse”, but they expand the notion of “abuse”, tying it in with the old country chestnut of someone doing someone else wrong. In general, the focus in McBride’s songs is less on the bad things happening than on the striving for freedom.

In a press release about “Teenage Daughters”, McBride is quoted as saying about teenagers and parents, “Let’s get real, it’s not always easy when they’re seeking independence and you are wanting to keep them in that innocent stage”. That word “independence” should stand out for you, as it’s the concept behind so many of McBride’s hit songs, starting with “Independence Day”, the 1994 single still commonly heard on country radio stations. Written by Gretchen Peters, it’s a song of liberation but also revenge. It’s the first song of hers to explicitly mention physical abuse (“daddy left the proof on her cheek”).

Its success as a story, though, seems less about taking joy in revenge (less so than other revenge songs like, say, the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” or Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”) than about the rousing way the song channels a feeling that this woman is finally free to do what she wants. The pairing of personal freedom with national freedom is, of course, a winning songwriting conceit as well, and helps guarantee the song will get radio airplay every July, at least.

Even before 1994, though, McBride had already sang, if a tad less fiercely, about women leaving men who treat them badly. The first song of her first album, and the title track, was “The Time Has Come”, released in 1992. The time has come for our narrator to finally leave behind the man who has been mistreating her: “the time has come to let you go”. She’s finding peace through the tears and through releasing long-hidden feelings.

Elsewhere on the album, she sings “Losing You Feels Good” (because loving him hurt so bad) and offers a study of a woman who can’t find that capacity to leave her cheating, mistreating man, even though she knows she should (“True Blue Fool”). The lovers-leaving-each-other theme is a classic country-music one, but there’s a special focus here on women emancipating themselves from abusive men, always tied in with an inspirational message of transformation.

Her second album The Way That I Am, the one featuring “Independence Day”, gets feistier about all of this, starting right with the album’s first lyric: “The way you treat me baby / you cheat and tell me lies”, sung in an angry, I’m-through-with-this manner. The third album, 1995’s Wild Angels, gets deeper with these themes. In its details, “Phones Are Ringin’ All Over Town” spells out the cycle of abuse-apology -forgiveness- abuse that marks abusive relationships, while describing the man’s disbelief that she would ever leave him, as the woman escapes into the silence of night. In “A Great Disguise”, the couple acts like everything is fine, keeping up appearances to society while their home life is a nightmare. The lyric “if they only knew they’d be so surprised”, taken together with “you’ve really done a number on my soul”, says so much, so painfully, without spelling out what exact evil was done.

Along with those songs are some that offer more positive counterviews of relationships; the hit “Safe in the Arms of Love”, for example, tells how true love is a refuge, not a place of struggle. “Wild Angels”, her first #1 hit, reinforces the same by singing about love as something messy and complicated. Lovers are “crazy fools” who “still break each other’s hearts sometimes / spend some nights on the jagged side / somehow (we) wake up in each other’s arms”. In acknowledging the struggles inherent in any relationship, the song, in the context of her other songs, implicitly points out that “love is complicated” can never be used as an excuse for abuse.

The fourth album, 1997’s Evolution, evolves these themes even further. “Wrong Again”, a #1 single, illustrates the mentality of the woman who thinks this man is different, but ends up falling for the same trap. Other people offer apologies for his behavior: “it’s something that he’s going through / happens to a lot of men”. The bluesy “A Broken Wing” (also a #1) is a detailed study of how an abuser breaks down the spirit of the victim, keeping her always dependent. She gives him everything; he crushes her dreams and makes her cry, but gives her just enough love to think he’ll change. In typical fashion, though, McBride’s focus is on her dreams and her emancipation. McBride sings to the rafters, a gospel choir behind her, in the moments when she tells us that, even with “a broken wing”, this woman is going to fly. And fly she does, right out the window, leaving a note behind.

Near the end of Evolution, McBride becomes focused on the idea that love is that safe place within our hearts (“Here in My Heart”), that love exists above and beyond the physical trappings of the world (“Valentine”), and that what we call “love” is really a divine force, the supreme being we turn to for comfort, security, trust, and understanding (“One Day You Will”). This brings up an aspect of McBride’s music that can’t be ignored.

Though she has very few, possibly no, songs that wear Jesus on their sleeve like a badge of honor, in her overall body of work, that theme of rising-up from the harshness of the world is clearly related by her and her songwriters to Christianity. “Independence Day”’s reference to “roll(ing) the stone away” is not accidental. In her songs, hard-on-their-luck people reinventing themselves is subtly related to resurrection; self-healing is related to faith; the empathy she expresses towards the characters in her songs, even alcoholic, abusive men, is related to a love-your-neighbor Christian humanism.

An anthem coming from this place is “Love’s the Only House” (“big enough for all the pain in the world”), from her fifth album, 1999’s Emotion. One of her few songs to focus on larger societal problems in an explicit way, it also offers, in its chorus, a memorable way of describing an idea that runs through her whole discography. That album Emotion also includes her first song to bring children into the picture of battling parents, “This Uncivil War”, which explicitly posits the home as a war zone; and “Good Bye”, a song about suicide which makes the point that even when people leave, they never really leave us .

The album overall has a more explicit optimism than her previous albums, a turn upwards that occurs more dramatically on 2003’s Martina, where it finds its corollary musical stance in a more polished sound that seems very representative of the times. On Martina, the focus is on the positive upward motion of growth, love and rebirth, on songs like “She’s a Butterfly”, “City of Love”, “So Magical” and “When You Love Me”.

One of her best known songs, “This One’s for the Girls” fits snugly into this climate, as an inspirational dedication to women of all ages. In the scope of her overall discography, it fits even better, and feels less like Hallmark schmaltz, more like an anthem that unites the various female dreamers of her previous songs under one inclusive umbrella. It’s a significant part of that empathetic chain running through her songs, from “The Time Has Come” through “Teenage Daughters”.

Waking Up Laughing (2007) sounds from its title like a continuation of that positive streak, and it is to an extent, but it actually includes some of her most brutal stories of abuse and rebirth, like “Beautiful Again”, where a girl is abandoned by her parents, molested by her uncle, and left pregnant and alone by her boyfriend. Of course, though, she finds in herself what it takes to keep starting over, keep reinventing her life’s story. “Cry Cry (Til the Sun Shines)” takes various beaten-down characters, men and women, and has them finding through their pain the release they need to start anew. “House of a Thousand Dreams” takes the home, central in so many of her songs, and positions it as a place where, even in the hardest of times, so many hopes and dreams live.

Shine (2009) similarly combines straight-ahead optimism (“Sunny Side Up”) with tales of human struggle: “Wild Rebel Rose”, where an abused girl gets revenge, and “I’m Trying”, an understanding look at the effects of addiction, on the addicts and those who love them. The album’s singles, “Ride” and “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”, both offer messages of uplift, along familiar McBride themes, over anthems tinged with ‘80s pop and rock sounds, typical of the day.

Returning to “Teenage Daughters”, it looks at family in a particular light and good-natured way, but still within that tone carries McBride’s classic themes of the impact people make on each other, especially within the confines of a family. It comes from a mature perspective, while the music again offers slight changes to position McBride seamlessly within today’s commercial country climate. There’s something about the way she sings the song, and the guitars she’s singing over, that recalls the style of current country darling Miranda Lambert. That fact reminds us not just of the way McBride manages to keep up with the times without altering the essence of her music all that much, but also of McBride’s stature in country music as a maternal figure.

Yes, her characters are her daughters, and occasionally on her albums you’ll hear the voices of her actual daughters, but in a way today’s younger female country singers can be seen as her offspring, as well. You can hear “Independence Day” in the revenge songs that came in its wake, and hear McBride’s sing-to-the-hilt ways in younger singers like the vocal approach of the American Idol school of female country stars (Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler).

“Teenage Daughters” seems like such a lightweight song, but in one fell swoop it conjures up memories of characters in previous Martina McBride songs, echoes her focus on family dynamics and the individuals’ search for their own independent path, furthers her stature as an understanding voice of the struggles of women in contemporary times, reminds us of the way she’s adapted her music to the changing times, and stands as a testimony to her influence on the younger generation of country singers. It also announces that 2011 will bring another Martina McBride album, no doubt with more tales of women asserting their independence within a society that allows their abuse to remain a relatively silent issue.

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