Following the commercial disappointment of The Time Has Come, RCA Records and producer Paul Worley led Martina McBride in a slightly slicker direction for her sophomore album The Way That I Am, released in the fall of 1993. With the neo-traditional movement in a decline, the record echoed the sounds of the time, increasing the prominence of drums and electric guitars without sacrificing the distinction of pedal steel heard throughout.
Gretchen Peters’ amped “My Baby Loves Me” was chosen as the lead single, and became McBride’s first top five hit. She followed with the equally upbeat and charming “Life #9,” which peaked at #6. Both are excellent and equally showcase McBride’s powerful voice in a contemporary enough setting to work within the confines of country radio at the time.
But just as she was taking off, McBride took a risk with Peters’ spousal abuse anthem “Independence Day,” which peaked at #12. The story of a girl orphaned when her sadistic father killed his wife and himself by setting their house on fire, was too controversial in a world dominated by the daily headlines of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. But nonetheless, McBride’s powerful performance and an equally memorable music video elevated the track into her signature tune, and to this day its one of her most popular recurrent songs heard on country radio.
RCA released two other singles from the project, the mid-tempo but rather fluffy “Heart Trouble” (which peaked at #21) and the decidedly slow ballad “Where I Used To Have A Heart” (which peaked at #49). Neither is particularly memorable, nor strong enough to score big at radio.
McBride herself stated in the liner notes of her Greatest Hits album that the label should’ve gone with Bobby Braddock’s masterful “Strangers” in the wake of “Independence Day,” a fact I wholeheartedly agree with. My personal favorite of all her recordings, “Strangers” takes a powerful full-circle look at a couple’s courtship, marriage, and divorce flanked by them beginning and ending as strangers. It’s easily the strongest non-“issue” relationship song McBride has ever tackled, and the most well written power ballad of her career.
Pam Tillis and Bill Lloyd co-wrote the intriguing “Goin’ To Work,” a feminist anthem celebrating strong women who are proud to be in the workforce. I love the track, although it does beat the concept half to death by repeating the “going to work/I’m good at my work/thank god for my work” refrain into the ground. But McBride sings it well and I quite enjoy the melody.
She does her best with Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy’s “That Wasn’t Me,” a popish piano ballad, but the track lacks anything to elevate it beyond its simple yet elegant confines. Far better is the stunning “She Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” a neo-traditional ballad concerning a wife in denial about her husband’s affair. She falters, though, on the gimmicky “Ashes,” a drives-home-its-point-too-hard relationship song comparing a couple’s love affair to fireplace embers.
Overall, The Way That I Am is a very strong collection of songs tackling somewhat surprisingly heavy themes for an artist looking to gain traction at radio and retail. I’ll never understand what RCA was thinking with the latter two singles – I would’ve released “Strangers” and “Goin’ To Work” instead – but she thankfully survived it. Copies are available very cheaply and it’s well worth adding to any music collection.