In 2006 Martina McBride stole the show at the CMA Music Festival. Despite performances from the likes of Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Brooks & Dunn, and Wynonna, it was the straight-up, plant-your-feet-and-sing set from Kansas-born McBride that took the prize. In its festival wrap-up, the Nashville Tennessean pronounced hers the "best performance — hands down, for sure, no question."
Except that McBride herself doesn't quite agree. "My memory is of that show completely sucking — I thought it was a mess!" she says now. "They used smoke for the TV filming that I have an allergy to, so while I was waiting to go on, I started to get this reaction, like I had a wool sweater in my throat. I was coughing between lines, and it took five songs to get to where it felt like it had passed."
This year, though, there was every reason to expect an even better show from McBride: She has a new album, Waking Up Laughing, which has already spawned a couple of hits. She also went into the festival in full fighting shape — she's in the middle of an extensive tour and has been appearing on television seemingly every week. She coached the American Idol contestants, has three appearances on the Today show airing over the summer, and shared the screen with hosts from Emeril to Regis and Kelly.
In the next week, McBride has two major spotlights on ABC — as one of the anchors of "CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock" on July 23, and on the Primetime special "Six Degrees of Martina McBride" on July 30. The Primetime show follows six singers who have to connect themselves to McBride in six steps or fewer — those who pulled it off got a session in the studio with the 40-year-old star, and the best will receive a record deal. ("It's a fascinating concept," she says. "But they all actually had talent, which made it easier.") We shadowed McBride through her jam-packed day at the CMA Music Festival — universally still known by its old name, Fan Fair — to get a sense of what country music's biggest event is like from the inside.
8:30 am/ET: McBride's tour bus pulled in from a show in Jackson, Mississippi. She regrouped briefly at home, spending some time with daughters Delaney (12), Emma (9) and Ava (just shy of 2). Within a few hours, though, she was getting her hair and makeup done for a long day in the public eye. She leaves a few minutes later than her scheduled 12:30 departure after Ava insists that Mommy, not the babysitter, change her diaper, and following a quick but lively debate with Delaney over whether celebrity tabloid magazines are appropriate preteen poolside reading.
12:40-12:55 pm: On the drive to her first stop of the day, she realizes that she's put on two left contact lenses, takes off some stray bits of nail polish and notices that she's hungry. "When you're first starting out," she says of her Fan Fair schedule, "you try to do more things, more appearances. Now we've kind of streamlined things, instead of trying to be everywhere at once."
12:55-1:10 pm: McBride arrives at her annual charity event, the YW Celebrity Auction, benefiting the YWCA's Domestic Violence shelter and educational programs for women. She meets her husband, producer and studio owner John McBride, backstage, and immediately begins shaking hands, posing for photos and signing things. "At its base level, child abuse and domestic violence are about overpowering someone," she says later when asked why this cause is so close to her heart. "And that really makes me mad, and it's not fair and it's not right. I just really have a passion for trying to break the cycle, and have women see that there is another way, and that there are people out there who can help them."
1:10-2:00 pm: She takes the stage at the auction, which is held in a (sweltering) tent set up in a park near the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the next 50 minutes, she will help sell 14 different lots that raise almost $37,000. McBride walks some of the items through the crowd, getting closer to her fans. "We have to get some excitement in here — you're a very subdued group this year!" she says. "It's more fun when we get rowdy." John has been working the cell phone backstage and spontaneously hustled up the day's biggest item — a donation of six platinum-record plaques from McBride, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney. The set sells for $12,000. Later Martina will express some confusion over the bidding, and tries to figure out why an autographed plaque with a photo and printed lyrics went for more money than a Dolce & Gabbana dress that she wore on an album cover. In total, this year's auction raised over $103,000.
2:00-2:05 pm: Off the auction stage. She quickly touches up her powder and lipstick, shakes some more hands, poses for more photos.
2:05-2:20 pm: McBride does a group interview for a half-dozen television cameras at the back of the stage, followed by a few quick one-on-ones. She also knocks out a quick promotional spot for Crest toothpaste, with whom she is launching a new campaign. The walk from the tent to her husband's Escalade is only a few feet, but she is instantly surrounded by autograph seekers, more aggressive than usual for this event. "Two minutes ago they weren't there," says one of her security team. "It's like they came up through the cracks." McBride expresses concern that it's not fair to sign for these people if she didn't sign for all of the people who actually paid and came to her event.
2:20-2:35 pm: The McBrides drive out to LP Stadium, where she will headline tonight's big concert. Martina calls home to check in with her girls, goes over details of the auction and again complains that she's hungry.
2:35-2:50 pm: Martina and her team go over the set list and plans for the evening sitting on a golf cart in the stadium parking lot.
2:50-3:00 pm: She paces the stage, reviewing plans with the directors and camera team for a segment in the show in which she will present a new Chevrolet truck to a family who survived the recent tornado in Greensburg, Kansas. Then she and John head back to their car and drive off for a few hours at home, stopping briefly on the way out of the lot to talk to some kids who happen by.
3:00-5:00 pm: Martina fixes a peanut-butter sandwich, sits by the pool with her kids and takes a 30-minute nap.
5:00-7:00 pm: Back in hair and makeup, getting ready for the evening's activities at the stadium.
7:40 pm: The McBrides pull back into the stadium lot, with daughter Emma in tow.
7:55-8:40 pm: In the ABC bus, McBride tapes her part for the special's segment about the Kansas family. The producer asks her about growing up in Kansas, about her own memories of dangerous weather. "I remember that they always showed The Wizard of Oz on TV during tornado season," she says, "and seeing her sing was one of the first times I remember knowing I wanted to grow up and do this."
8:40-9:00 pm: The family — Chance and Tracy Little, with a baby and another on the way — drive up on a golf cart to meet Martina. They lost everything in the tornado, and Chance drove around the town in a truck with the windows and tires blown out picking up people and taking them to shelter. With the sound of Billy Ray Cyrus singing "Achy Breaky Heart" blasting out from inside the stadium, McBride goes straight to the Littles' toddler, who fusses through most of the meeting. The parents are shy Midwesterners who have never traveled in an airplane before this trip, but McBride draws them out talking about their experience.
9:00-9:15 pm: Each of the artists appears for a backstage press conference before taking the stage. McBride answers 15 questions from the 30 members of the media gathered for her session, ranging from her thoughts on producing her new album (the first time she has taken that role for a project of new songs) to whether her daughters are interested in singing as a career.
9:15-9:30 pm: A barrage of quick photo shoots and filmed interviews — for a USA Today shoot, the Atlanta ABC affiliate, the network's electronic press kit about the CMA special and, for some reason, with Bob from ABC's The Bachelor.
9:30-10:40 pm: Back to the bus to change and prep for the performance.
10:40-11:00 pm: A golf cart whisks McBride to a room backstage, waiting to be taken out to the stage.
11:00-11:35 pm: Showtime. Following performances by LeeAnn Rimes, Josh Turner and a surprise set from Rascal Flatts, once again McBride is all that any of these 50,000 fans will be talking about the next day. She blasts through seven songs in 35 minutes — five top-10 hits, a stunning version of "Over the Rainbow" and her new single, "How I Feel." She gets choked up when she says, "every time I come out and sing on stage, it's the best feeling — especially when I feel the love I feel tonight. We all know country-music fans are the best fans in the whole world." McBride closes with a bluesy, killer rendition of her smash "Broken Wing," recently put back in the spotlight as the song that took Jordin Sparks over the top on American Idol. ("It was really flattering to have that song chosen," she says, "and for her to do it so great and obviously feel really passionate about it. I cheered her on.")
So, was she pleased with this year's performance or did she think this knockout show "sucked," too? "Yeah, vocally it felt better this year to me," she says, leaning up against her tour bus after the show. "It's always hard to judge those shows since there's so many people and it's so spread out and so big, but I was happy with it."
11:35 pm: And with that, Martina McBride's marathon day at Fan Fair 2007 ends. She heads home to enjoy some rare time off the next day, before heading back out on the road. "When I think about Fan Fair, it seems like a long day," she says. "But when you actually do it, it flies by, it's fun. It's one of those things that seems more daunting than it actually is."
The CMA Music Festival airs Monday at 9 pm/ET on ABC. Six Degrees of Martina McBride airs July 30 on ABC.