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

People logo People 7/28/2021 Nancy Kruh
Martina McBride standing in front of a sign: Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride © Provided by People Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride

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."

a couple of people that are standing in a room: Jason Davis/Getty John and Martina McBride © Provided by People Jason Davis/Getty John and Martina McBride

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).

a group of people on a newspaper: Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's yearbook © Provided by People Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's yearbook

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.

Martina McBride standing in front of a sign © Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride

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.

text, letter: Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's 4H ribbons © Provided by People Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's 4H ribbons

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.

Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's childhood mementos © Provided by People Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's childhood mementos

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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.

text: Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride's demo tape © Provided by People Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride's demo tape

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.

RELATED: Why Martina McBride Has 'Mixed Feelings' About Patriotic Connotations Tied to 'Independence Day'

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?"

text, letter: Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's "Independence Day" lyrics © Provided by People Nancy Kruh Martina McBride's "Independence Day" lyrics

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.

a glass display case: Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride's awards © Provided by People Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride's awards

RELATED: Martina McBride Stirs Battle with Spotify Over Gender Imbalance: 'I'm Frustrated for My Sisters'

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."

calendar: Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride's Barbie doll © Provided by People Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride's Barbie doll

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 standing in front of a building talking on a cell phone: Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride © Provided by People Jason Davis/Getty Martina McBride

"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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