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McBride digs out roots

Though she made it on the strength of pop-flavored country ballads, racking up in excess of 20 Top 10 singles since arriving as a bona fide Nashville star in 1993, Martina McBride comes to HSBC Arena this evening having challenged both herself and her sizable audience with her most recent effort, the aptly named "Timeless."

McBride could've offered more standard pop-country fare this time around and surely guaranteed herself similar platinum success. But she went deep instead, assembling an album of cover tunes, country standards from back in the day. All of these tracks, McBride recently told the Washington Post, were recorded live in the studio, on vintage, date-specific recording equipment, "just for the love of it."

"I didn't really think about how it would be received," she told the Post.

Though the names Ray Price, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Don Gibson are staples of classic country music, most of McBride's audience was unlikely to have heard of them, let alone be familiar with their groundbreaking roots music, when McBride released her album.

The singer covered all of them on "Timeless," and for the first time in her recorded career, she downplayed her tendency to oversing, like a country music Christina Aguilera, instead finding her own space in the laid-back, traditional arrangements.

There's no other way to look at it; McBride was taking a huge chance with this record. If she succeeded, countless pop-country fans would get a history lesson in the form's tradition, and McBride herself would have a pure labor of love under her belt. If she failed? Well, let's put it this way: Nashville doesn't have the greatest memory in the world.

The risk paid off, however. "Timeless" debuted at No. 1 on the country charts, and crossed over to hit a peak of No. 3 on the pop charts, in the process, selling in excess of 2 million copies.

Make of this what you will. Could it mean that fans of pop-country are hungry for something deeper, a bit more substantial? Or does the success of "Timeless" suggest simply that McBride could release anything and have a hit with it, such is the loyalty of her fan base?

I'm opting for choice No. 1.

-- Jeff Miers

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