Following the release of “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”, the final single from Wild Angels, Martina McBride made a couple of guest appearances on other artists’ records. The first was “Still Holdin’ On”, a duet with Clint Black (written by Black with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart) that peaked at #11. The second was a guest vocal on “Valentine” by adult contemporary/New Age pianist Jim Brickman, which reached #3 on the adult contemporary chart. Both tracks were included on Martina’s next album, 1997′s Evolution, a project which saw her moving further away from traditional country sounds in favor of slicker, more heavily layered production. The album, which Martina co-produced with Paul Worley, was the most successful of her career, selling more than three million copies in the US. It opens with a clip of a home-recording of a seven-year-old Martina singing Little Jimmy Dickens’ “I’m Little But I’m Loud” before moving on to more contemporary fare.
Though her albums had sold quite well up to this point, Martina’s success at radio had been very hit or miss. Evolution was the turning point for her as far as singles success is concerned. Disregarding the Clint Black and Jim Brickman collaborations, the album’s first single was “A Broken Wing”, which became her second #1 hit in early 1998. The gospel-flavored mid-tempo number found her once again telling the story of an abuse victim, although this time around the abuse was psychological rather than physical. Whether the victim escaped or committed suicide at the end of the song is open to interpretation.
Meanwhile, “Valentine” has been enjoying some unsolicited airplay on country radio, prompting RCA to release a more countrified version to country stations. The single version, which contains a prominent pedal steel guitar track, is not the version that is found on the album. It reached #9 on the country singles chart. Though criticized by some for its Hallmark-esque sentiments, it is a pretty song that I quite like.
Up to this point, Martina had never had more than two Top 10 singles from the same album. She managed to break the cycle of two hits followed by a few misses when “Happy Girl”, a Beth Nielsen Chapman and Annie Roboff composition, landed at #2. It is actually one of the album’s weakest tracks and my least favorite. I greatly prefer the next release, “Wrong Again”, a beautifully performed ballad and one of the finest singles of Martina’s career, which made it all the way to #1. The album’s final single, “Whatever You Say” is more in the power-ballad vein. Though it is probably the album’s most heavily produced track, Martina knocks it out of the park. The tune finds her confronting an uncommunicative lover, and giving him an ultimatum. It just missed the chart’s top spot, peaking at #2. Sara Evans contributed to the backing vocals on this track.
As far as the album cuts go, there is much to like and not much filler, though “Keeping My Distance” and “Here In My Heart” are on the weak wide. My favorite among the non-singles is “One Day You Will”, a Richard Leigh co-write with Shane Teeters, that is spiritual without being overtly religious. Not commercial enough to release to country radio, I think this song could have found success on the Contemporary Christian charts.
Despite its pop leanings, I think that Evolution contains some of Martina McBride’s best work. Like most country artists who enjoy a degree of crossover success, she would eventually go too far into pop territory (with her next album as it so happens), but with Evolution she managed to find that delicate balance that allowed her to expand her horizons without alienating her country fans. With the exception of Timeless, it is her last truly great album. It is essential listening for Martina McBride fans, and easy to find if you’ve managed to miss hearing it up to this point.