When Martina McBride picks a song for an album, it has to have the total package.
"Great lyrics, great melody, a song that makes you feel something – all of those things," said McBride, who performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Illinios Assembly Hall. "One of the things I think I've done well in my career is to choose songs that have strong lyrics and an emotional connection for the listener. But the lyrics only go so far if the melody isn't there."
McBride just started the process of selecting songs for a new album, which she started on a week ago at the state-of-the-art studio built by her sound-expert husband, John McBride. At this point, she's still feeling her way on the record, which she hopes to have out later this year.
"It's too early to tell at this point" what the album will be like. "I'm still finding my way. I'm working with a new producer (Dan Huff), taking a new approach. We're still getting used to each other."
Huff is a guitarist who has produced Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and many others.
"It's been great so far. I really respect him. Actually, we have a lot of mutual respect for each other. I'm looking forward to working with him," McBride said.
On her last album, "Waking Up Laughing," which is also the name of her tour, McBride co-wrote three of the songs on the album, which she also produced.
"It was a fun experience on the last record. I may possibly try to write something for the new album," she said. "I haven't started on anything yet. I'll try to write some songs, but if they're not good enough, they won't make it on the album."
Such are the requirements of McBride, one of country music's top artists with CD sales of more than 16 million, including six No. 1 singles and 22 singles in the top 10. Talk about the total package – her concerts are also top draws, and last year's tour, also in support of "Waking Up Laughing," was the top grossing solo female show in country music. It ranked in the top five among all country artists.
And no wonder. McBride, with her big voice, can belt out a song like few other performers. Her voice has been called "timeless" and "classic." The same could be said of her looks – this is an artist with a "frequently asked questions" section of her Web site that includes such I-gotta-knows as: Is Martina married? (Yes). Does Martina have children? (Three daughters). Are Martina's eyes really that color of blue? (Yes). How tall is Martina? (5-foot-4). Is Martina a lefty or righty? (Southpaw, hey, she's creative).
McBride doesn't seem to mind all that prying attention from fans – in fact, she's honored when they pay good money for one of her concerts. McBride is one of the few performers who offers families a break on tickets. Tickets for her shows are half-off for children age 12 and younger with the purchase of a regular adult ticket. High school and college students also get a break with a valid ID.
"We've done it on and off for my tours," she said. "I know how hard it is to take a family out. It's expensive. And people have so many ways to spend their entertainment dollar these days. I want to make it easy for the whole family to come out and see my show. I don't want them to have to scrape if they want to buy a T-shirt or CD. And I know for college students it's hard to have extra money.
"I want as many people to come to my show as possible, so it's good to give them a little break on tickets," she said.
The current leg of the "Wake Up Laughing" tour started Jan. 18 and runs through the end of April. McBride, who will be at the Assembly Hall with Texas honky-tonker Jack Ingram and Nashville newcomers Lady Antebellum, said she's having more fun than ever on the road.
"My kids are a little older and not as demanding, even though I have a 2-year-old. The older ones can help take care of the younger ones. I have more energy. Being a headliner, you can set your own vibe and the feel of your shows, so I'm trying to do fun things," she said.
"My band and I have been together for a long time, and we decided on this tour to make the most out of it and think of ways to make it as much fun as possible. We had a Mardis Gras party last week, and the week before we all went out and saw a band," she adds.
"I'm performing better than ever. My voice is bigger and better than ever. You come into your own at some point as a performer – and that's what's happened to me. I feel very comfortable and strong on the stage."