From rodeo queen to country diva to sitcom star, Reba McEntire has done more in 50 years than most could do in twice that time. And what better way to celebrate turning the big 5-0 than to put out an incredible boxed set featuring one song for every year she’s lived?
This three-disc set traces the evolution of McEntire’s career from sassy ingénue to pop country queen. Like her idol Dolly, Reba (are last names really necessary when it comes to these two women?) has built an empire around her folksy, down-home persona and associated down-home housewear, footwear, and clothing lines. It hasn’t always been such smooth sailing, though; she’s certainly had her fair share of hard times. Despite suffering incredible tragedy in 1991 when a plane crash killed seven members of her band and her road manager, Reba has remained the epitome of grace, class, and steel magnolia resilience throughout her 30-year recording career.
While the vast majority of songs in this set are of the broken heart variety, there are two occasions in which McEntire lets her social consciousness shine, albeit in the most overwrought, telethon-y way possible. “She Thinks His Name Was John” was recorded smack dab in the middle of the AIDS panic, and features a woman suffering the consequences of a one night stand with all the dramatics of a Lifetime movie: “Now each day is one day that’s left in her life / She won’t know love, have a marriage, or sing lullabies / She lays all alone and cries herself to sleep / ‘Cause she let a stranger kill her hopes and her dreams”. Somehow Reba makes this moralizing sound far less preachy when she sings it.
“He Gets That From Me” tackles the subject of orphaned children and widowed wives. McEntire says she wanted to address the personal losses suffered due to the September 11 attacks as well as the subsequent wars. Again, the lyrics are so completely overdramatic that in the hands of a lesser singer, the song would transform into a quivering pile of goo, but McEntire’s gosh-darn sincerity engenders nothing if not empathy and the occasional teary eye.
The collection ends on a high note, a duet with protégé Kelly Clarkson on “Because of You”, which not only showcases the gorgeous voices of both women, but subtly reminds the listener of McEntire’s influence on those who came after—thanks to Clarkson’s theatrical vocals, which are reminiscent of a young Reba.
Those who bought #1’s, McEntire’s 2005 two-disc hits collection, will already have most of the songs on this collection. However, some of her strongest songs are the ones that didn’t top the charts. Case in point: “Fancy”, the story of a hooker with a heart of gold and a tragic past, the cover of Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, and a countrified version of the classic torch song “Sunday Kind of Love”. While beautifully packaged, the liner notes to 50 Greatest Hits don’t deliver any new information to even the most casual fan, instead choosing to fill pages upon pages with a series of photos confirming that Ms. McEntire is indeed a very beautiful woman, even if CMT seems to have placed her in the category of elder stateswoman. It would have been nice to replace some of the glamour shots with more extensive notes from the artist regarding her songs and career.
Nevertheless, for new fans and diehards alike, 50 Greatest Hits is a keeper. The commercial country music scene is pretty sad these days, but a collection like this will remind you why you wade through the crap: every now and again a voice like hers comes along, wrapped in three chords and the truth. And knowing Reba, it’ll probably be accompanied by an epic music video and some crazy period costumes.