It's slightly jarring to hear Martina McBride -- who is perhaps best known for her songs of modern female empowerment -- sing "You Ain't Woman Enough," Loretta Lynn's 1966 classic country hit in which the wife of a wayward husband restakes her claim to the lout and sends the floozy vying for his attention packing instead.
After all, McBride is one of contemporary country music's biggest stars and most powerful voices, best known, perhaps, for her 1994 breakthrough, "Independence Day," the controversial song of an abused wife who exacts her revenge with extreme prejudice. And yet, McBride's version of Lynn's comparatively quaint number is a winner, with just enough sass in her voice to chase off her rival and enough grit to suggest that it won't be smooth sailing for hubby once she gets him home.
Like her "Woman Enough" heroine, McBride turns the tables on contemporary expectations on "Timeless" and unleashes her voice on 18 enduring songs from the likes of Hank Williams ("You Win Again"), Hank Cochran ("Make the World Go Away"), Tammy Wynette (" 'Til I Can Make It on My Own") and Buck Owens ("Love's Gonna Live Here"), among others.
Classic country music sounds like ashes in the mouths of so many current artists, perhaps because they were raised on rock as much as anything else. Attend just about any major country concert these days and you're more likely to hear covers of tunes by John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and even Led Zeppelin rather than something by someone named Hank, Lefty or Merle.
Country stars of the past, if they are mentioned at all, are invoked as distant gods, occasionally brought forth to confer authenticity on a new artist through the sacrament of what country awards shows call "vocal events." Beyond that, their music is left to molder in box-set tombstones and on playlists of embattled classic-country radio stations.
McBride is not blameless in this. Despite growing up singing in her father's band in small-town Kansas and starting out in Nashville as a neotraditionalist, her sound has edged ever closer to country-pop. She even sang with rocker Bob Seger on the 1998 hit "Chances Are."
On "Timeless," McBride appears to be making amends, with her own personality shining through on her stripped-down reading of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," which is so intimate it rivals Sammi Smith's then-shocking 1971 version.
For the most part, though, McBride's versions are faithful re-creations of past performances (right down to crowding the backup singers into the left channel on her Ray Charles-inspired "I Can't Stop Loving You"). Elsewhere, she simply lets her beautiful voice carry such songs as Buddy Holly's string-laden "True Love Ways" (as much of a pop song as this collection contains) and Lynn Anderson's breezy hit "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden."
None of McBride's interpretations will make you forget the first time you heard these songs, nor the original artists who sang them. But her intention here seems to be temporary stewardship of the material -- to maintain the continuum of genuine country music through our era and keep it going forward. And on that count, "Timeless" more than lives up to its title.