hen you’re Martina McBride, you can pretty much write your own ticket. She’s not only considered the current ne plus ultra of female country singers, she’s the 3-time reigning Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year (she’s won 4 times overall, and is nominated again this year). Thus, when someone of that stature takes artistic risks, it matters, and it’s news—especially when that someone, in the person of McBride, is more often associated with ballad-heavy pop-country. That’s exactly what she’s done on her new album Timeless, on which she covers 18 country classics, in the process crafting the finest album of her career.
Cover albums can be tricky affairs, as an artist tries to strike a balance between showing the appropriate reverence for the material being covered, and attempting to put his/her own spin on songs associated with another. On Timeless, McBride gets the balance right, and proves herself much more of a classic country artist herself than many might’ve expected. Take, for example, her take on Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” No, it doesn’t have quite the hayseed quality of Lynn’s original, not to mention the threat of violence that so often popped up in Lynn’s songs addressing “other women,” real or potential (there’s country, and then there’s country, and Lynn is most defiantly the latter). That said, McBride sounds nearly as country as she ever has, getting the essential feel of the song in a way that lesser (read: most) singers today just couldn’t.
Another hard country key: McBride’s got blurbs—raves, really—from both Marty Stuart and Buck Owens inside the CD booklet, and that’s a pair of artists whose country credentials I can’t imagine anyone questioning. Owens’ own “Love’s Gonna Live Here” gets covered by McBride on Timeless, and she does a great job with it, even taking on some of Owens’ vocal tics—just listen to the way she sings the word “shine,” giving it a little push in the song’s first line. One of the many joys of this album is that McBride’s song choices aren’t, by and large, obvious. For example, she doesn’t cut any of the classics from Dolly Parton’s songbook (though Parton herself appears, adding backing vocals to “I Still Miss Someone,” a standout) but does two (two!) Sammi Smith songs, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and the great Merle Haggard-penned “Today I Started Loving Again” (written with his then-wife).
Who’d expect Martina McBride to cut the Buddy Holly gem “True Love Ways” (which she gives a mannered, smooth airing), or Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” (not to mention opening the album with it)? Yet she does both, and oh so well. One of the chief criticisms of McBride is her tendency to oversing, à la a country Celine Dion, and it’s often a fair knock. She reigns in that tendency here, however, letting the songs—and her voice, more powerful in many ways without the belting—shine, as they richly deserve. McBride produced this set herself, as well, the first time she’s done so, and recorded it using plenty of vintage equipment (no guitars nor guitar amps younger than 1965!); she’s earned the right to take chances such as this, and earns even more by getting Timeless right, song after song. This is not only the best album in her catalog, but one of the year’s best as well. Timeless is destined to be considered just that.