Retro Review: Martina McBride, “Love’s The Only House”

Why is this genre so afraid to say something these days?

Country music has a rich history of tough talking and plain speaking, highlighting the highs and lows of reality and demanding that we pay attention. Over the last decade or so, however, it seems that Nashville has reversed its mission, dumping song after song on us telling us to ignore and forget the world and all it problems, and only rarely deigning to even offer some food for thought (and even then it’s sometime just empty calories: “Buy Dirt,” anyone?). Rather than confront the issues facing us, Music City is simply content to provide a shovel for us to bury our heads in the sand.

Back in the day, however, artists were at least slightly more comfortable in presenting us uncomfortable truths for our consideration. One of the more-prominent voices in this lane during the 1990s and 2000s was Martina McBride, a small woman with a big voice (arguably the biggest of her generation), and someone who wasn’t afraid to talk about the problems facing the world (especially the problems faced by women). This brings us to the subject of today’s examination: “Love’s The Only House,” a turn-of-the-millennium single from her Emotion album that peaked at #3 in 2000. She may have used more of a velvet glove on this track than she did on, say, “Independence Day,” but the underlying message in clear: People are struggling and suffering in the world, and the only way anything would get better was if we started caring about them.

The production here is best described as an interesting mix using mostly uninteresting pieces. The primary instruments here are an understated electric guitar and a standard drum set, with some keyboards (both a classic piano and a Hammond organ) adding some atmosphere to the background (there are acoustic guitars here too, but they don’t add a ton to the sound). There’s not really a lot to this mix: The riffs are simple, the tempo is moderate at best, the volume level is low, and the instrument tones are generally positive but not significantly so. So what could possibly make this interesting? It’s the synergy of all these pieces, creating a folk-rock sort of sound with a relaxed vibe and a surprisingly-optimistic feel. (This feeling is enhanced by the sound’s one unexpected piece, a harmonica that opens, closes, and fills space within the track, giving it the feel of an Alanis Morissette track.) You wouldn’t think such an approach would work with a song that contains so much negativity, but not only does it avoid getting in the way of the message, but it tries to instill a sense of hope in the listener. Not only is love “the only house big enough for all the pain,” but it’s also possible to stuff all of that pain inside it, and conquer the problems that the track points out. All in all, it’s a pretty solid mix that supports and enhances the song’s impact, and transcends its run-of-the-mill ingredients to do something good.

The late 90s were something of a boom period for female artists in Nashville, but most of them were playing in the pop-country lane, and while McBride could channel her inner Shania or Faith when she needed to (by the numbers, the sickeningly-sweet single that preceded this “I Love You” was her most-successful song), she was probably the only person in Nashville at the time who could pulled off a song like this. Part of it was her post-“Independence Day” reputation, but she also had the charisma and vocal authority to deliver a serious line and get immediate buy-in from the audience. She absolutely owns the narrator role here, and when she dives into the heavy third verse, the audience doesn’t bat an eye and just nods along (although given that these same lines could be delivered just as credibly in 2023, she wasn’t able to move anyone to action). She doesn’t really break out her big voice here, but she effortlessly dials up her intensity on the back half of the song (especially the closing chorus) to drive her point home. She’s an earnest, believable presence on this track, and while she wasn’t able to drive much change with the song, she at least gets the audience to acknowledge the problem.

The writing here can be a little unfocused at times, but it gets stronger as the song progresses. The narrator is a grocery store clerk who meets a couple of struggling individuals (the stressed-out mid-career professional, the expectant single mother without the money to purchase milk) and has had some struggles of their own in the past (a failed relationship that left some scars). The relationship verse honestly feels a bit out of place in the song, and together with the first verse (which is awfully light on details), it makes the vague “love’s the only house big enough for all the pain” feel a bit watered-down and not all that moving. It’s the straight talk on the third verse, however, that pulls the song together: It talks income inequality at a time when the term wasn’t yet mainstream, brings up the broken-down neighborhoods, disadvantaged youths, and severe challenges that said places and people faced decades before Eric Church would revisit the topic on “Put That In Your Country Song,” and calls out their own privileged state and declares their willingness to do something about it, whatever that may be. It’s a direct, no-nonsense callout of issues that are still a problem today, and it finally gives the song some needed direction, punch, and memorability (it’s that third verse that sticks with you long after the song ends). It also helps add weight to the expectant mother story that follows (which also allows the narrator to put their money where their mouth is, even if they’re only out the cost of a milk carton), and lets McBride build up for at least a kinda-sorta big finish at the end. It’s certainly not a perfect song, but it comes up clutch when it has too, and succeeds in making the listener at least face the problems that are raised.

Looking back, “Love’s The Only House” is a song that feels like it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did: The writing was a bit scattered, and the production tries to put a happy spin on some not-so-happy topics. There’s some good stuff buried in here, however, and when paired when the indominatable presence that is Martina McBride, it gained a sense of power, confronting the audience with what ailed the world, pledging to do some better, and asking those who heard the song to do the same. It didn’t change the world, but at least it made people pay attention, which seems to be the opposite of what country music tries to do today. I’d like to see more songs take this approach now: Ask people to put down their beers, open their eyes, and see the world for what it really is, hopefully moving some who hear it to take steps to alleviate the pain that others feel. A song like isn’t enough to bring about a better world, but it’s at least a good place to start.

Rating: 7/10. You should check this one out.


One thought on “Retro Review: Martina McBride, “Love’s The Only House”

  1. Probably my favorite song of this era from her was “Concrete Angel”, which was dealing with even heavier subject matter. To this day, that song still packs a massive gut punch every time I listen to it.


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