Reba McEntire is something of a throwback to the old days of country music. She’s very much old school, possessing both the classiness and grit of Loretta Lynn and the homespun glamour of Dolly Parton. And as one of the female pioneers alongside Parton in making country music palatable to a mainstream, pop audience; Reba is a bridge to the newer generation of crossover country artists. Still rooted firmly in country as opposed to the Top 40 leanings of many of her female contemporaries, Reba is still recognizable and appreciated by fans outside of the spectrum of country music thanks to a myriad of critically acclaimed successes in the worlds of music, stage, and television.
In addition to numerous music awards, she has received the prestigious Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Award for her performance on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun. Her work on her sitcom, Reba earned her a Peoples Choice Award. McEntire’s accolades outside of the music world are as impressive as her numerous achievements within.
For nearly three decades, Reba’s voice manages to sound sweet without being syrupy, while being extremely powerful. McEntire’s vocal strength yields a different kind of authority than the bluesy, drawling growl of Janis Joplin, the weathered rasp of Marianne Faithful, or even the soul-shrieking powerhouse of Tina Turner. Instead, Reba’s voice combines the aspects of all three singers but tempers it with a Southern sweetness and an unmistakable femininity. Whereas the aforementioned belters carry an element of androgyny, Reba’s voice is clear and crisp, yet still manages to convey a sense of fearlessness and strength, bursting through with a power from the bottom of her soul. It’s the voice of a woman who is very at home with being a girly-girl at times, but a no-nonsense one.
On Reba Duets, Reba hooks up with a variety of chart-topping superstars in the genres of pop and country music. Ever the charming Southern belle, McEntire does not set out to outshine her company. In many cases they shine right along with her, producing some gorgeous results on several pieces on the album. While some of the guest artists fade into the scenery, the one constant that remains throughout the whole of the disc is that Reba sounds as effervescent as ever on every single track.
McEntire’s vocal persona shines through instantly on “When You Love Someone Like That” with LeAnn Rimes. The two women’s voices blend well together with Rimes sounding like a younger version of Reba. In this duet, Reba assumes the role of the wise woman who’s been there, a comforting, reassuring presence to the heartbroken LeAnn, assuaging her grief over a relationship gone bad. While definitely a falling within the jurisdiction of new school country, slightly poppy and with an edge of female empowerment, the song plays up the grand old tradition of country music of concise and emotion-packed storytelling with a single song. The song is one of the standout pieces on the disc. The pairing shows off the tremendous vocal range of both women, hitting high notes as a harmonious tandem and skillfully choosing the right moments to nail it for dramatic and passionate effect.
Reba shares the stage with Ronnie Dunn, one half of Brooks & Dunn, on “Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma”, a very traditional, male/female duet, saturated with country fiddling. A fish out of water tale, Reba and Ronnie Dun put on a verbal play written in the form of letters written home to family about finding a special, fellow Okie in the wild and wooly world of California.
Perhaps the most unique track on the album is the outstanding duet featuring Reba alongside Kelly Clarkson on Clarkson’s hit “Because of You”. This isn’t the first time Reba has sang with Clarkson who is arguably the most vocally talented Top 40 star currently plying her trade. McEntire performed a duet or two with Kelly on American Idol with a redux of her 1993 classic duet with Linda Miles, “Does He Love You?” Revamping the track, the delineation between pop and country is sharp. Reba’s voice carries her familiar, full-bodied twang alongside Clarkson’s, powerful, pop-tinged, multi-octave alto. As with Reba’s turn with LeAnn Rimes, the double-feature cover of Clarkson’s hit showcases two women with exceptional and distinctive voices playing to one another’s strengths.
Not every song on Reba Duets makes for a strong pairing. One of the more uptempo ballads on the album, “Faith In Love” with country/rock outfit Rascal Flats is a good but rather average piece while the same can be said for “She Can’t Save Him” with Trisha Yearwood.
On “Everyday People”, Reba’s duet with the celebrated Carole King becomes an anthem for Habitat for Humanity, one of the many charitable organizations Reba works with. Unfortunately, King tries to affect too much of a Southern twang instead of singing with her real voice. In contrast with Kelly Clarkson’s strong, self-possessed, and unashamedly pop/rock tones, it’s a bit of a downer to hear a legend like King playing the vocal equivalent of “dress up”. It’s an attempt to better fit in with Reba’s honest timbre, where a contrast could have better served the track.
Similarly disappointing, is the unexpected surprise cameo by Justin Timberlake on “The Only Promise That Remains”. Timberlake relegates himself to background vocal duties on this track. He fades into a secondary role as opposed to the other artists on who make a strong showing next to the legend. Timberlake sounds pretty enough and does contribute a certain mood to the piece, however, anyone expecting more of a collaborative effort out him would be sorely disappointed.
With a nice array of guest artists, vocal styles, and tracks each with their own unique flavor, Reba Duets far exceeds the expectations of albums where one artist isn’t solely responsible for the quality of the material. Most duet albums are marred by uneven collaborations, and fortunately, this one isn’t one of them. With an abundance of storytelling and artists with the ability to convey the proper emotions on each mini-drama contained on the album, Reba Duets is largely a strong showing, with even the lesser offerings on the album substantially outweighed by its significant merits.
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