Seems no matter how many times MCA Nashville sticks Reba’s best songs on a CD, it sells like crazy. #1’s, a collection of Reba’s chart-topping singles tracing her 23-year career, is clearly meant as a stocking stuffer. What other reason could there be for celebrating 23 years of hits? And, come to think of it, the Reba-philes suited to a gift like this more than likely own all the songs on it. So, who the hell is MCA trying to kid? Who needs this CD? Then again, someone’s buying it. Obviously, that’s why they’re MCA and I’m poor.
Yeah, it’s sneaky, but so what? Any new Reba CD, hits or otherwise, is bound to delight. Her output since the Starting Over covers record hasn’t been as consistent as her earlier stuff, but there’s always one song—maybe two or three—on any given CD that recalls that earlier stuff and remind us why she’s so special. Reba’s like the young country fan’s substitute mom. She’s been there through it all—the shock and distress of adolescence to the unknowing and the bad choices that come with early adulthood. I know, too, she’ll be there for me when I’m old, gray, possibly divorced and picking out night school classes.
There’s something instructive in Reba’s voice—a comforting, reliable God-equivalent, for those of us requiring her specific brand of coaching. She’s like Emmylou in that way—and, probably Loretta and Tammy and Dolly. What they do transcends singing. When Reba does “You Lie” (on the first CD of this set), her deep, rough voice shifts up several octaves and right out up the chimney as though she’s stopped merely singing and somehow become the wind in the bedroom. Emmylou does the same thing on, for instance, “Boulder to Birmingham”. She’s not singing—she’s writing experience into your head. It’s so rare to hear that anymore. Trisha Yearwood and Michelle Wright come close, but their songs are less lesson-driven, so they’re yet to cross over from brilliant singers to witch-like brain-writers like Reba and Emmylou.
Reba’s tendency to move beyond singing began around 1986 on the Whoever’s in New England record. The title song from that one comes in at number four on #1’s, which lists the hits chronologically. From this one on, the songs get better and Reba’s voice begins to take on that divine life of its own. The early songs collected on the first CD, it’s fair to say, aren’t as affecting as the later ones. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, though it could have something to do with the timing and the state of country music upon their respective releases. There’s something a bit hoedown-y to “Little Rock” and “How Blue” that distance them from deeper tracks like “For My Broken Heart”, “Till You Love Me”, and “What Do You Say”. Those songs are more image-driven, more in tune with a woman’s place and predicament.
The earlier tracks are broader, more general in their phrasing. “How Blue”, for instance, goes like this:
If I sink any lower, I’ll go under,
If I cry any more I’ll go blind,
There ain’t no relief for this missing you grief,
How long can you torture my mind.
It’s anybody’s heartbreak—so simple and stale. “For My Broken Heart”, on the other hand, concentrates the heartbreak. Like this:
And it takes all the strength I’ve got,
To stumble to the coffee pot,
The first of many lonely mornings I’ll have to face.
You call to see if I’m okay,
I look out the window and I just say,
Last night I prayed the Lord my soul to keep.
Real images, real people. Though the listener may not have walked this exact path, it’s still relatable. The coffee pot, the little things. And the heartbreaker, in this case, is sympathetic. Not every man, in other words, is a whisky-drinkin’, skirt-chasin’ bastard. If he is, Reba got a message for you, too, on “Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands”:
I stood before God, my family and friends,
And vowed that I’d never love anyone else again, only him.
As sure as my gown of white, I stood by your side,
And promised that I’d love you ‘til the day I died,
Lord, please forgive me, even though I lied,
‘Cause you’re the only one who knows just how hard I’ve tried.
The protagonist in that one has a raging affair with a stranger after enduring her husband’s million broken promises. That’s another good thing about Reba—affairs, lies, fear; all behavior is real behavior. She doesn’t write her songs, but this message is Loretta’s message. It’s age-old and it never gets old. It’s probably to our benefit, too, that Reba uses a team of writers. As a result, the slices of life and the reactions to human experience are so varied that, at some point, we’ve all felt what “Reba”‘s felt. Some songs cut deeper than other, and resonate more fully. Everything here is necessary, though, in charting Reba’s vocal and stylistic progression.
If there is a downside to collection such as this (other than the money-grubbiness of it all), it’s probably the limitations of the concept. #1’s obviously means every song had to hit that number, but that doesn’t mean other, better songs don’t exist in the less brightly lit corners of Reba’s catalogue. “Love Will Find its Way to You”, for instance, and “Little Rock” make it on here due to chart position, but “I Wish That I Could Tell You” on Read My Mind, “You Remember Me” and “This Picture” on Rumor Has It, and “Bobby” on For My Broken Heart are superb in comparison and have yet to make it on to a Reba hits album.
Hey—there’s an idea: The Best Reba Songs We Haven’t Previously Collected. At least that’s a good fake reason for throwing together a greatest hits package. So—bring on Reba 25. I can’t wait to see what MCA comes up with for that one.