January 12, 1998 12:00 PM

Nashville’s hard-workin’ mama

IT’S AT MOMENTS LIKE THIS THAT WHEAT FARMER’S daughter Martina McBride realizes she’s not in Kansas anymore. In the middle of a tranquil morning with her husband of nine years, John, 39, and daughter Delaney, 3, the country singer is puttering around the kitchen with her hair in curlers when a tour bus pulls up outside her three-bedroom Brentwood, Tenn., home. “I don’t mind it when I’m on the road,” McBride says of the buses that stop by daily with fans who hope to catch a glimpse of her. “But when I’m home with my family, I just don’t get it. John,” she adds with a wicked grin, “keeps threatening to go out there and moon them.”

Actually, Martina is the cheekier one in the family. The 31-year-old singer upset some stodgy listeners with her 1994 hit “Independence Day,” about an abused wife who, instead of standing by her man, torches the family home. Now McBride, who visits junior highs to speak to teenage girls about ways to avoid potentially violent relationships, is back with another song about a woman in an emotionally abusive relationship. But instead of exacting revenge, the heroine of “A Broken Wing” escapes and rebuilds her life.

A Top 10 hit on Billboard’s country singles chart, “Wing” helped loft McBride’s fourth album, Evolution, into the Top 10. Friend and mentor Reba McEntire believes that tiny (size 2) McBride has hit it big because she “has one of the purest and most powerful and soulful voices.” But John McBride thinks it comes down to his wife’s ‘tude. “Here’s Martina,” he says, mimicking a favorite phrase, ” ‘Are you jerkin’ me around? Don’t be jerkin’ me around, okay?’ ”

Her tart and sturdy sense of self stems from a childhood spent laboring on her folks’ 400-acre farm in Sharon, Kans. (pop. circa 250), and performing since the age of 6 with her family’s country-rock band. Led by father Daryl Schiff and featuring Martina on vocals and keyboards, little brother Marty on guitar (now 29, he is a member of her tour band) and mother Jeanne working the sound board, the Schiffters played weddings, supper clubs and BYOB dances. “Singing was my identity,” says Martina, who remained a Schiffter until she graduated (in a class of 10) from high school in 1984.

Dropping out of a nearby junior college after one semester of her freshman year, she augmented her income from the local Dairy Queen by singing for a band called the Penetrators. “I was so naive,” she says. “I thought, ‘That sounds like a good name!’ We’d ride around in this van with a hole in the bottom, eating sandwiches and showing up to sing Pat Benatar songs.” The group “made no money,” she adds. “But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”

Her next professional venture fared even worse. She’d gather up the members of her new band in a converted ambulance she drove and haul them off to practice. “Only they wouldn’t rehearse,” she complains. The silver lining: Although the group flopped, Martina found harmony with the man who rented the band rehearsal space in the warehouse where he also lived—Wichita sound engineer John McBride. Recalls Martina: “Here I was, crying on his shoulder about my band not coming together, and I thought, ‘I’m in love with this guy. This is crazy. He lives in a warehouse.’ ”

The couple married in 1988 and, hoping to find new career opportunities, moved to Nashville two years later. John quickly scored a gig as Garth Brooks’s soundman and in 1991 joined him on tour. Later, “so we could be together,” he landed Martina a job selling T-shirts at Brooks’s concerts. In 1992 good fortune came Martina’s way when an RCA executive who had received one of her demos from John offered to sign her. Still, she was characteristically skeptical: “I was like, ‘Are you sure? Don’t be jerkin’ me around.’ ”

After the release of her debut album The Time Has Come, McBride again went on the road with Brooks—not as a concessionaire, but as his opening act. Like almost every mother trying to balance family and a demanding career, she keeps an exhausting pace. In her case, enthusiastically. Pregnant with a second child, a girl due next April, McBride hopes to record an album of Christmas standards and resume touring by June. Yet she professes not to be impressed by her drive. Says McBride: “It just feels natural for me.”


KATE KLISE in Nashville