Angel spreads her wings

Martina McBride takes other people's songs and knocks the stuffing out of them. By Jasper Rees
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Martina McBride is one of those singers who refers to her voice, with the merest tinge of piety, as her "instrument". It's a common habit in Nashville, a musical boom town swarming with artists who don't write their own songs or play their own instruments, whose fortunes therefore depend on the noise that comes out of their mouths. No wonder they tend to parlay it up as a kind of vocal violin, or oral oboe. In McBride's case, the indulgence is explicable. The only grey area is which tool her voice resembles. A flame-thrower, maybe, in those bitter-sweet torch songs. Possibly a sledgehammer. Or when nailing a song is not enough - in "Independence Day", say, a savage howl about a girl who avenges the brutality of her drunk dad - she achieves total demolition with a wrecking ball.

By some curious anatomical mismatch, the instrument's owner is petite and wide-eyed. Only her lanky violinist, she tells her audience at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, and doubtless everywhere else on her three-week European tour, challenges her for thinness of lower limb. Not even the hair is big (unlike the violinist's). After the first album - Wild Angels is her third - the rural tresses were sheared and these last couple of years she's worn a crossover crop, the kind of coiffure they can relate to beyond the borders of hat act land.

But the voice came to town fully formed. Thanks be to God, who never gets less than first credit in her album liner notes, McBride was born with it, and by the age of seven she was singing at weddings and dances in her father's band. Her brother Marty, who's now in her band, played guitar: he stoically puts up with the nightly "I slept with this guy for four years" gag. And to make this a truly nepotistic evening, 15-month- old Delaney Katharine takes a bow and predictably, when separated from her mother, demonstrates that the family lungs have been inherited.

The idea that coaching might coax something extra out of the voice only occurred to her when she joined the queue of hopefuls in Nashville. She had been singing six nights a week, four hours a night in a Wichita house band. In terms of crowd control and stage movement, it may have sent the learning curve skywards, but the instrument took a battering. "I asked a vocal coach to show me some warm-up exercises," she says. "The smallest amount helps incredibly. I'm not real educated about it, but I would assume it's the same way for an athlete. The vocal cords - I don't know if they're actually a muscle but they're similar."

The record deal with RCA came along before she had been waiting long enough to feel discouraged. She cleared the usual hoops: waitressing, singing on demo tapes, and it was pretty easy to measure her rise in status. Before the deal she was flogging T-shirts on a Garth Brooks tour. After it she was supporting him. While the mostly conservative country radio is still wary of playing two women consecutively without a male in between, this is the biggest leg-up available to a country chanteuse (Trisha Yearwood is a previous beneficiary). Partly on the back of Brooks's white coattails, McBride's second album, The Way That I Am, went platinum.

The singles from that album form the backbone of a show that scrupulously maps out the career. There's "Life #9", "My Baby Loves Me" and "Independence Day", each in their own way focusing on female empowerment. The last two are by Gretchen Peters, a songwriter whose lyrics seem to get under McBride's skin. But mightn't she gain further empowerment if she could write all her own songs? "I'm not a writer, so for me to insist upon writing all my own material I think would really limit me. I always feel that the songs that I interpret become my own, so I've felt just as close to them as I would if I wrote songs. It has to feel comfortable. It has to feel like an old set of clothes. Sorting through the sea of songs and finding the 10 that fit is a challenge."

The challenge must largely be a question of finding the time. For Wild Angels McBride sat through two or three thousand demos, and didn't stop looking until the last song was recorded. However high she claws up the ladder, it doesn't get any easier to locate new songs. A by-product of the Nashville revolution, and one reason why the rise of country may just be decelerating, is that singers more and more outnumber the songwriters, and there aren't enough good tunes to go round.

One hit from Wild Angels that McBride belts out on stage is "Safe in the Arms of Love". You can tell it's a song with legs because half of the women in Nashville have recorded it. But none have injected it with quite the fist-clenched oomph that McBride dredges up from the pit of her diaphragm.

Harping back to the standards she sang for her father as plain old Martina Schiff, her set knocks the stuffing out of Hank Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart", before blasting the hide off an acid-test medley of Patsy Cline weepies. These songs are the country equivalent of the operatic repertoire, the exam a Nashville diva has to pass to prove she's learned her instrument. You could dock her a few marks for attempting to detonate the roof, but McBride is near to the top of the class.