October 24, 2005 12:00 PM

Last fall, Martina McBride was caught in a scheduling conundrum. The country singer and her husband, John, had booked a Thursday night concert on the road with Alan Jackson. But McBride had also committed to cheer on her daughter Emma at a school pet show in Nashville early Friday morning. What’s a mother to do?

Easy, says McBride. “We drove overnight to Nashville, got in at 7:15 a.m. and went to the pet show,” recalls the singer. “It was crazy, but you can’t miss the pet show!”

Or the first day of school. Or the Halloween parties. Which is why McBride decided to keep her tour bus in park for the past year and become a full-time homeroom mom for her daughters Delaney, 10, and Emma, 7. She also prepared for the arrival of the newest McBride member—Ava Rose Kathleen, who was born on June 20. “It was my easiest pregnancy ever!” says McBride, 39. “Staying home made all the difference.”

For this singer—a nominee for the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year award the sabbatical is hardly out of character. “Her music is her passion,” says longtime pal Faith Hill. “But her family is her life and her greatest love.”

It shows in her new album, Timeless (in stores Oct. 18), which she found time to record in between her kids’ puppet shows and baking. Veering from her trademark emotional anthems about domestic violence (“Independence Day”) or child abuse (“Concrete Angel”), the classic country fare on Timeless is the music of McBride’s childhood growing up on a dairy farm in Kansas. In fact, the track “Heartaches by the Number” was plucked from the original set list of the Schiffters—the family band in which McBride made her musical debut at age 7 alongside her dad, Daryl Schiff, and brother Marty. “My dad sang that song every Saturday night for as long as I can remember,” says McBride. “It was neat to do it again.”

McBride is equally excited about returning to the mic in January for her U.S. tour. But when scheduling gigs, McBride’s mantra still applies: family first. McBride plans to only play weekend shows during the school year so the whole family can tag along on the tour bus, which is currently being outfitted with a new crib for Ava. “I’m happy that’s the stand she took,” says John, 47, a recording studio owner who married McBride in 1988. “We’ve never been apart from the kids more than two days at a stretch.”

“It’s not all unselfish,” says McBride. “It’s a thrill for me to bring the girls to school and go to their shows. I wouldn’t want to miss all that.”

While traveling, the party of five will stick to family traditions, including dinner together every night, though at home the meal is usually whipped up by Mom herself. Her specialty? Fried chicken in garlicky brine. “Oh my God, it’s good!” she says. Not that any of her southern cooking shows on her size 2 figure, which she quickly regained months after Ava’s birth. “It’s just good genes,” says McBride. “My brother’s so skinny I can barely fit into his jeans!”

Music also seems to run in the DNA. “[Delaney and Emma] sing with the radio. They’re both really good,” says McBride of her girls, both big Green Day fans. Are the McBride sisters the next Dixie Chicks? “They love music, but not as a career,” sighs McBride. “It breaks my heart.” The boisterous Emma plans to expand on her pet show success and become a vet. As for the more reserved Delaney, she’s still pondering her future, but for now she’s growing up to be the responsible older sister. “She’s a big help with the baby,” beams McBride. “If I’m cooking, she can play with Ava. She can even change her diaper—but not No. 2.”

McBride also finds support from her famous friend Hill, whose daughters Gracie, Maggie and Audrey frequently head over to the McBrides’ Nashville home for playdates. The moms make their own fun by indulging in their mutual passions: cooking, going on double dates with their husbands, “oh, and I can’t forget about a great bottle of wine,” says Hill, 38. “That is, a bottle for each of us. We each have three girls to raise.”

Not that McBride would have it any other way. “I really wanted girls,” says McBride. “They’re so fun and complex. I just love it. Of course, I haven’t hit the teenage years yet so I might be eating my words.”

Michelle Tan. Kelly Williams in Nashville

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