A dog barks in the background as Martina McBride discusses her "family show." The country star is calling from her Nashville home, which she shares with John, her husband of 16 years, and their two daughters: Delaney, 10, and Emma, 6.
"I got one on the way," says the singer, who's three months pregnant. "We don't know what we're having yet."
Before she gets further along in the pregnancy, McBride is hitting the road with her extravagant family-oriented holiday show, "The Joy of Christmas," which stops at 1st Mariner Arena Sunday night. McBride has been doing the concert for the past three years.
"I wanted to put together a show that combined elements of Broadway," says the 38-year-old Kansas native and four-time winner of the Country Music Association's award for female vocalist of the year, including this year. "I wanted it to be more than just singing in a gown in front of an orchestra. It's kinda multimedia with enormous screens in the back behind the props. We have a scene where we're in Victorian England, and you see the English clock tower on the screens. It's not just my face on the screens all the time."
There's a nativity scene, and McBride's two daughters are among the show's cast members. "It's been a great experience for them to feel like they contribute every night," the singer says.
In the two-hour show, which includes a 20-minute intermission, McBride will perform such tried-and-true holiday standards as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" and "Silver Bells." Those songs and others are also included on the artist's White Christmas album. Released in 1999, it is still a consistent seller, garnering a platinum certification last year.
The set design for "The Joy of Christmas" is "big and elaborate," McBride says. Because the stage is filled with so many props, there's no room for a band or an orchestra. So the artist will use pre-recorded tracks.
"Visually and emotionally, there's so much going on, it never enters your mind that there's no orchestra," the artist says.
But McBride promises that her vocals will be live throughout. Which is a good thing, because she is undoubtedly one of the best female singers in country music -- a smart, emotional interpreter with a clear, strong tone and wide range. She is seldom bombastic. Unlike some of her country peers, McBride is able to nicely balance slick pop conventions and gritty elements of country. Her songs are often inspirational, "You go, girl!" odes to resilient women -- like her recent hit, "This One's for the Girls."
"I don't consciously pick songs that show strong women," McBride says. "There really aren't a lot of songs written where women are not strong, where they're saying, 'You can treat me like crap, and I'll love you anyway.' I'm just naturally drawn to songs about real women."
Her latest album and seventh overall, Martina, is her strongest set to date. It came out last September, selling more than 2 million copies. The record boasts tuneful, intelligent songs, emotive vocals from McBride and warm, consistent production by the singer and Paul Worley. The album was recorded in a state-of-the-art Nashville studio McBride and her sound engineer husband recently purchased. She was able to lay down her vocals and take breaks to cook dinner for her family in the studio's kitchen.
"For me, it's just an immediate reaction to a song," says McBride, who generally reviews between 1,500 and 2,000 song submissions when she prepares to record an album. "It's what hits me and moves me when I'm working on an album."
Her next project is in conjunction with Hallmark, an album of eight intimate songs called My Heart, available early next year. The tracks were culled from McBride's previous albums.
For the past decade, the artist has been one of the premier women in country with more than 15 million albums sold and six No. 1 singles, including her signature, 1993's "Independence Day." But despite the commercial success and the demands that come with it, McBride stays grounded: Family comes first. She tours only when the kids are not in school. She still drives her 1992 Honda and shuttles the girls to school and to extracurricular activities.
"There's no question about where my priorities are," McBride says. "I just love where I am right now in my career."
See Martina McBride's "The Joy of Christmas" Sunday night at 7:30 at the 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Tickets are $39.50-$49.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. at WTMD-FM 89.7.