New Exhibit Spotlights Martina McBride's Career: 'If I Believe in Something, I'm Going to Fight for It'

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum tells the story of the "Independence Day" singer's life, from her small-town Kansas roots to her platinum-selling music — to her own commemorative Barbie doll!

Martina McBride
Martina McBride. Photo: Jason Davis/Getty

For Martina McBride, an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has long been a "bucket list" item, and this week she can finally cross it off.

"Martina McBride: The Power of Her Voice" officially opens at the Nashville museum on Friday, and on Tuesday, the multi-platinum-selling artist came to see it for the first time. Standing amid the expanse of displays, she confessed she was struggling with her emotions.

"It's surreal and overwhelming," she told PEOPLE. "I feel connected and disconnected at the same time."

Martina McBride
John and Martina McBride. Jason Davis/Getty

How could she not, considering so many familiar items have now turned into museum artifacts and are now sitting pristinely behind glass?

There are the glistening fruits of the 54-year-old artist's storied career, including five CMA trophies (four for female vocalist of the year) and four ACM trophies (three for female vocalist of the year), and lavish examples of the glamorous stagewear she's performed in over the years. But then there are the keepsakes that might be found in any basement or attic: baby booties, a rocking horse, a grandma-sewn quilt, a high school yearbook (that shows — no surprise — McBride sang in the chorus for all four years).

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's yearbook. Nancy Kruh

These everyday mementos help tell the story of McBride's childhood in tiny Sharon, Kansas, where she grew up a farmer's daughter singing in a family band led by her father. By high school, she'd released a 45 rpm single — an example is on display — of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" on McBride's own Martina Records label. Several purple ribbons also on display, from teenage 4H competitions, presciently foretell McBride's future.

Of course, there are the "highest" awards for "Country or Western Folk Music" singing. "A nice strong voice — nice stage presence (means you didn't act scared)," one judge wrote on an evaluation sheet.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's 4H ribbons. Nancy Kruh

But there's also a top ribbon for McBride's homemade yeast rolls and a second-place for her cornbread, a hint at the culinary love that has since turned the singer into a popular cookbook author.

"I never made that connection before, but it's interesting that I pretty much have had those passions since I was a kid," says McBride.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's childhood mementos. Nancy Kruh

An otherwise ordinary mailing envelope on display offers the first inkling of the gutsiness that McBride has become known for. In 1991, she sent a demo tape in the envelope to RCA Records talent scout Randy Talmadge and marked it "REQUESTED MATERIAL" even though it wasn't. The tactic worked, and McBride was soon signed. Talmadge thought to save the envelope, and five hit-making years later, mounted it on a plaque for a birthday present.

"I was really, really happy that he kept it and gave it to me," says McBride.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's demo tape. Jason Davis/Getty

The original lyrics of "Independence Day," handwritten by songwriter Gretchen Peters, are the exhibit's nod to what has become McBride's signature song. McBride says the single, which addresses domestic violence, provided perhaps her best opportunity to display her moxie.

She recalls the day she learned the controversial song was failing to gain ground in radio play: "The promo guy said, 'We're losing this single. It's probably not going to make it.' It was in the thirties, and I was like, what?"

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's "Independence Day" lyrics. Nancy Kruh

Undeterred, McBride began making personal phone calls to radio DJs, and the song eventually peaked at No. 12, earned CMA song of the year honors and became a timeless classic.

"I feel like that sort of Kansas can-do attitude that I was raised with has carried me really far," says McBride. "If I believe in something, I'm going to fight for it."

McBride has since gone on to become a vocal advocate against domestic violence, as well as for other causes, including breast cancer awareness and the representation of female artists in country music.

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's awards. Jason Davis/Getty

Over the years, her career has brought other previously unimaginable opportunities — but none so much as the Martina McBride Barbie doll created in her honor in 2006. The exhibit includes an example, of course.

McBride says Mattel solicited her input for the design, which features a replica of the dress she wore to the ACM Awards in 2004.

"It was a cool moment for me," she says, "because I played with Barbies when I was a kid. Oh my gosh, I had the car. I had the little closet with all the clothes. My sister and I played with Barbies constantly."

Martina McBride
Martina McBride's Barbie doll. Jason Davis/Getty

McBride continues to have an active touring career with headlining performances, and this summer and fall, she's supporting the tour bills of Alabama and Blake Shelton. She also recently announced a double-vinyl greatest hits album, available Aug. 20, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of her original RCA record deal.

Reviewing her career in the exhibit, she says, only leaves her eager to do more. "I look at this display and see how we've done so many different kinds of albums," she says, "and I just want to keep forging ahead and keep making music that fills my soul."

Martina McBride
Martina McBride. Jason Davis/Getty

"Martina McBride: The Power of Her Voice" opens Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, and it runs through Aug. 7, 2022.

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