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Cover Girl: Country Star Martina McBride Stretches Out to Sing Classic Soul and R&B Tunes on Everlasting 

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A few years ago, country singer Martina McBride revisited her traditional country roots on Timeless, a collection of traditional country tunes. She had so much fun making the album, she decided to release yet another album of covers. This time, however, she decided to sing old soul and R&B songs. She's certainly got the voice for it, and the resulting album, Everlasting, was released to wide acclaim earlier this year.

"I love singing my own songs but cover material is fun as well. I wanted to do that again," she says via phone. "I just decided to take a different approach and do iconic soul and R&B songs, a lot of which are familiar to my fans and have been country hits as well."

McBride's career stretches all the way back to the '90s when she made her debut with The Time Has Come. But she started singing well before releasing her first album.

"I didn't know anything different," she says of her childhood. "I sang from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. I knew this is what I wanted to do and what I loved to do. It was great to start at an early age. I didn't have to think about what I wanted to do with my life; it was always there."

While her roots are in country, when she was in high school she sang with a rock band.

"We did Heart and Journey and Pat Benatar and whatever was popular on the radio in the '80s at the time," she says. "I went on to sing with a cover band that did Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and pop and R&B stuff. I came back to singing country and moved to Nashville. I think it was important for me personally to have experience in different genres. I am a country artist but, at the end of the day, I'm a vocalist and I love all kinds of music. It gave me a good background."

When she first moved to Nashville, she didn't know anyone in the music business. But she quickly learned. And now, she's such a celebrity that she regularly hosts dinner parties, something she writes about in her new book, Around the Table.

"When you're really young — I was 24 or 25 when I moved to Nashville — you have a 'go for it' mentality and you don't know your limitations," she says. "We didn't know the culture and we didn't know how the music business worked. We didn't have any expectations. The community here is amazing. It can be really inclusive. I think it can be intimidating but, at the end of the day, everybody was really nice."

Everlasting is yet another testament to her talent. Her vocal performance on "Suspicious Minds," for example, shows just what a powerful voice she has.

"Yeah, it's a tough one," she says when asked about how difficult it was to sing the song. "It's one of the harder ones that we do, definitely. I always wanted to sing that song. I love the bridge and how dramatic it is. It's a lot of fun to do live."

For the gritty blues ballad "Bring it Home to Me," she teamed up with singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw, a guy who's gravelly voice is well suited to the material.

"He's a great singer, first of all," McBride says of McGraw. "He has great ideas in the studio. We've known each other for a few years. He was perfect for that duet. We got to sing it together in the studio as well. Sometimes, people record things separately and then put them together. But we worked on it together and divided up the parts. I haven't heard it done as a duet much. Figuring out the structure of it was a lot of fun."

A few notable songs were recorded but didn't make it onto the final CD.

"We recorded a Bonnie Raitt song that didn't make the record," says McBride, adding that producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Mayer) had a significant role in decided what to keep. "'Rescue Me' also didn't make it. 'Rescue Me' just sounded like the original. We wanted to pay respect to the original but you can't make a karaoke record. You have to bring something new to it. And I love that song. The Bonnie Raitt song was 'I Will Not Be Broken.' It's an amazing song. Sometimes, if you record in bits and pieces, when you listen to them back-to-back there is one that doesn't fit time-period-wise. It was more modern sounding, but I love Bonnie and I love that song."

One of the highlights, "In the Basement," finds her paired up with singer Kelly Clarkson. The two have terrific chemistry, and it comes across on the song.

"She's an amazing singer and she raises the bar," she says of Clarkson. "She came in the studio and sang with me on that. I love the original recording and it has a lot of sass. She's sassy. I hope we get to sing it live at some point."

For the subsequent tour, which started earlier this fall, she's put together an 11-piece band — including trumpet, tenor sax, baritone sax, trombone and a trio of backup singers.

"We have a four-piece horn section and three amazing background singers as well as bass, guitar, drums and keys," she says. "I wanted the show to be visually entertaining as well as musical. I did a throwback thing. Everyone is in coordinating outfits. The horns are doing their horn moves. The girls are doing their backup singer moves. Everyone is having so much fun on stage that it's really contagious. It's a party."

One review of the current tour pronounced that McBride is a "fearless" vocalist. Is that accurate?

"I think so," she says. "With some of the songs that I sing I feel you have to just go for it. Not hitting those notes is not an option in front of everybody — not that I hit them all the time. But you have to go for it."

Martina McBride

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd, Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $45-$75, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.

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