During this decade, country music began to sound less like it was made by musicians than simulated by something out of a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel -- a neurally implanted microchip that, when accessed, spewed forth "virtual country." Turn on country radio and from song to song, from artist to artist, most of what you hear sounds untouched by human hands.
Martina McBride has always seemed epitomized by the first line of her third album: "Between the perfect world and the bottom line." Slick enough to sound at home on country radio, McBride, who played last week at Town Hall in New York -- has nonetheless always been too genuine a singer to seem a mere product. Her CD covers have become the epitome of contemporary country chic -- slim leggings, netted tops, artfully rumpled white shirts, a sassy, spiky short haircut -- which is why it's become a little absurd for her to sing, "Don't need to dress like no beauty queen" in "My Baby Loves Me."
Yet, in neither presentation nor performance has McBride ever approached the soulless calculation of a practiced tart like Shania Twain. A post-"Stand by Your Man" female country singer, McBride has made the PC tradeoff of victimization for empowerment, yet she has never shied away from untrammeled emotion. Her songs of triumph throb with the passion that former generations of female country stars reserved for songs about heartache.
I've heard Martina McBride sing good songs and utterly mediocre ones; I've wished she'd trade in her slick Nashville band for some intuitive, roughhousing musicians, and watched her in performance as she tossed off canned stage patter. But I've never once felt like she was phoning it in, never felt I was hearing or seeing a creation of the Nashville machine rather than an actual person.
It all comes down to McBride's voice, which is quite simply one of the glories of current country music. Big and warm, it only gets bigger (and freer) when she reaches for a note, or when she hits it and lets loose. There were a few times during McBride's Town Hall performance when it was clear she was showing off a little, holding a note just to show that she could. But most of the time, as on "Broken Wing" (a perfect example of how a committed performance can redeem a conventional song), those sustained notes had much more to do with the sheer joy of performing, and with a willingness to let the emotion of the song well up within her and overflow. When that happened, it was breathtaking, a real thrill instead of the manufactured thrill of diva showboating.
There were practiced moments when McBride would open her arms to the crowd or hold one arm aloft as she tilted her head back. But there was nothing practiced about the way, caught in the grip of a song, McBride would hunch over, cock her head at an odd angle and screw up her face.
The New York show was a slick, assured, professional performance with one moment of unabashed show biz, when RCA president Joe Galante came out to present McBride with a platinum CD for her latest album, "Emotion." Among the evening's highlights were two unexpected and well-chosen covers, Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" (perfect for McBride's voice) and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" (the grandmother of all empowerment songs) -- which, though McBride's voice is no match for Aretha Franklin's, sounded soulful and not like a white girl trying to be soulful, and not like a white girl trying to be soulful. The low point: a cover of that irredeemable stinker "Still the One."
Northern country fans get to see live country so rarely that their enthusiasm can overwhelm the performance. McBride was the recipient of that enthusiasm at Town Hall, and she appeared genuinely delighted at the audience's appreciation. She even closed the show by taking an audience request for a number she hadn't rehearsed: an a cappella rendition of "O Holy Night," the simplest and loveliest of carols.
As usual, McBride closed the show with her 1993 country hit "Independence Day" -- the song that remains her greatest performance, and perhaps the most exhilarating single of this decade (it's certainly the most deeply subversive). Earlier she had performed "Love's the Only House" (from "Emotion"), her bid at "relevant" material, but the song is a piffle next to this tale of an abused woman's revenge.
If McBride ever stuck "Independence Day" in the middle of her show, it would swallow everything around it. And try as she might to contain it -- with an extended "gospel" intro and jokes about how New Yorkers understand a number about vengeance -- the song seemed to be singing her instead of the other way around. At one point she even threw the mike stand across the stage (where it landed on a bouquet of flowers she had just gracefully accepted from a fan). The refrain "Roll the stone away/Let the guilty pay" is just the most obvious of the song's contradictions, and McBride dove into them headfirst.
It would be unfair to say that the possibility of another "Independence Day" is one of the things that has kept me listening to McBride; you can't expect artists to keep producing masterpieces. But it would be dishonest to deny it, and equally dishonest to deny the pleasures of her music. At her best, when her voice is at its most soaring, listening to her provides an almost physical elation. So long as she's able to deliver the recognizable humanity that's characterized even her slickest, most formulaic songs, I'm hooked.