Make no mistake: Reba McEntire pioneered the crossover trail from down-home, rootsy country gal to sophisticated, big city country-pop diva that Shania Twain and Faith Hill followed to stardom more than a decade later. But Reba has something that neither of those singers, nor the many others who have trod the same path, have: she was a Nashville insider, on the tip of a burgeoning “new traditionalist” movement. And though her subsequent work has drawn the usual derisive “sell out” cries from traditionalists, McEntire has solidified her audience by singing material that speaks to women of all walks of life, seeming to speak of their innermost desires, secrets, and fears. In that respect, McEntire harkens back to the rich vein of ‘70s female country performers who specialized in songs that told stories and explored the female psyche. It goes a long way toward explaining her incredible popularity as well as why Shania and Faith fail to measure up.
The last studio album that McEntire released was 1999’s So Good Together, an album that presented the singer at the peak of her crossover sound. Those who liked that sound and presentation may be a little put off by Room to Breathe because, while the new disc features plenty of Reba the crossover queen, it also contains some more traditional-sounding material, such as the gospel-tinged “Love Revival” and the hardcore country “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain”, the album’s first single. The goal for this album was to represent the many different styles that Reba has performed over the years, and McEntire, together with producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, has done a good job of presenting a variety of sounds. For some, the result will be too diverse and lack focus, but if McEntire can do all of these styles convincingly, why shouldn’t she?
There are the requisite tearjerker ballads here, the songs that tell stories of plain people caught in painful situations that have become McEntire’s stock in trade. “Secret” opens the album with a powerful sound and tells the story of a woman who gave her baby up for adoption many years ago; now she wonders about the child and laments her decision. “He Gets That from Me” is a song about loss that McEntire considers her tribute to those who lost loved ones in the September 11th attack. The emotionally charged “Moving Oleta” tells the story of an elderly man who is forced by circumstances to put his wife in a nursing home. When McEntire sings that “Only God and couple of nurses / Helped the old man shoulder the burden”, it’s a devastating acknowledgement of the loneliness and separation that all humans must face.
The down from the mountain-style track “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain” is the heart of the album, featuring country harmonies (Reba with harmony singers Sonya Isaacs and Curtis Wright), banjo, and fiddle. It could be a track from one of Dolly Parton’s recent back-to-bluegrass albums, or something by Alison Kraus. Kraus makes an appearance on the album, in fact, as do Linda Davis and Dan Tyminski. “Mountain” says in bold letters that Reba is country and Reba is back. Whether listeners buy it or not, they’ll be hard-pressed to argue with the evidence presented on this particular track. It’s a strong sound that grabs listeners right from the three-part harmony on the opening.
Of course, Reba still has to compete with Shania and Faith, and she concedes nothing to them, not even their home territory. On the album’s title track she shows that she can out sing them even while sounding as contemporary and pop-oriented as anyone. “Secret” and “Somebody” also deal in the modern country-tinged pop sound that Reba helped forge. Room to Breathe ends with the obligatory duet, “It Just Had to Be This Way”, performed with Vince Gill. It’s the kind of sweeping, dramatic ballad that McEntire’s done plenty of, and it doesn’t end the album on a particularly strong or memorable note, but this is still McEntire’s best outing in awhile. Prior to the four-year hiatus forced on her by her forays into Broadway and television, McEntire seemed a little burnt out. Her song selection was no longer as sharp as it had been and there were times when it seemed she was just going through the motions. Room to Breathe makes you forget all that, with an inspired collection of tunes and styles that virtually screams “Reba’s Back!!”