Only the first name appears on the front cover. That Elvis-inspired conceit reflects the beautifully homely singularity of McEntire’s Christian name, of course, but also pays tribute to her as the reigning queen of Vegas-style country, a Presleyan dynamo of over-the-edge showmanship. Having brought buzzing synthesizers, big-ass drums, and boy dancers to midsize venue concert stages, McEntire—heck, Reba—bears some responsibility for such latter-day entertainers as Shania Twain (who—sorry—has not yet been around long enough to have earned only-first-nameness) and Garth Brooks (who—sorry—has).
What separates Reba from those late-comers is the way the grain of her voice works against the syrupy orchestration. (Note, also, how her real good looks work their way out from under the glamour-girl cosmetics someone has imposed on her for CD package photos.) Even when the songs are as mall-worthy as “Nobody Dies From a Broken Heart” and “I’ll Be,” Reba overcomes the inauthenticity through a heartbreaking catch in the throat and spunky vocal superheroics.
Try “Back Before the War,” for example. Its strings and huge contemporary drums make the liner notes’ claim that this track boasts “fiddle” seem a little forced. The lyrics, which use war as a metaphor for marital breakdown—but you know this already, didn’t you?—are contrived and a bore. But Reba’s vocals are a marvel; on this and such other cuts as “What Do You Say” (which is about dealing with bringing up G-rated children in an X-rated world, I fear) she goes for the heart just when you least expect it, her voice finding an unexpected but dead-on note to flatten you with. (You will not even notice that the emotions are in excess of the situation arousing them.) When a song works from beginning to end, music and vocals together, like “When You’re Not Trying To” or Reba’s duet with Jose y Durval on Boz Scaggs’s smooch classic “You’re All Alone,” you are in the presence of sublimity, if only of a very artificial sort.
No, this is not “real country,” nor does it offer more than the merest lip service to that notion. And so I am afraid that some potential listeners will consign this CD to the category that the Bubba-hata Jeff Stark of Salon calls “Big, dumb country”-music that aims for the nineties country audience of plastic tubing salespeople and secretaries who like to call themselves adminstrative assistants and divorcees who’ve gone back to nursing school to make something for themselves and their children and thus fails to live up to his idea of authenticity. But Big, dumb country audiences are not as dumb as he thinks. They watched Tremors and saw the sparkle in Reba’s eye when she was blasting away at those worm-deals with an elephant gun.