Reba McEntire’s third volume of Greatest Hits is just what her fans have come to expect. That there are three such collections in McEntire’s discography is amazing, but not as amazing as the many other things country music’s biggest female star has done — books, television specials, acting roles, and a sitcom. What accounts for Reba’s undying popularity, not only with hardcore country fans, but also with a wide segment of the general population?
Part of the answer comes with the mainstreaming of country music pioneered by Ms. McEntire and carried forward with great success by performers like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. None of these subsequent performers has managed to maintain the kind of credibility with a country audience that McEntire has, even though Reba’s music is certainly just as touched by pop music production and arrangements as theirs. Part of the reason is no doubt the fact that Reba’s been around for a long time and was doing country when it wasn’t popular outside of Nashville. Then too, there’s the mystique surrounding her ability to survive and push on after nearly her entire backing band was killed in a plane crash. “I’m a Survivor”, the brand new song that kicks off Greatest Hits Volume III, rings truer coming from her than it would from the likes of Hill and Twain. Reba has survived not only personal tragedy but also any number of changes in the pop and country music landscapes, but each and every single she releases still manages to climb the charts, every album earns her further awards and accolades. McEntire is literally the Loretta Lynn of a generation of so of country music fans that have watched their music go from the bottom of the popular music genre heap to somewhere a few steps from the top.
Greatest Hits III covers McEntire’s ’90s output, from “Fallin’ Out of Love” from the album Rumor Has It to 1998’s collaboration with Brooks and Dunn, “If You See Him, If You See Her”. The wealth of really good songs here demonstrates McEntire’s ability to select from the pick of the Nashville songwriter’s litter, with tunesmiths like Tommy Lee James, Sandy Knox, Walt Aldridge, Shelby Kennedy, Kim Carnes, and Kenny Rogers all represented here. Even the songs that are a bit on the overly dramatic or maudlin side are sold with conviction by Reba’s warm, voice and epic delivery. Some may find McEntire’s output too wrought with drama, but what the heck do you want from country music if not a little drama?
“I’m a Survivor” (the song) manages to combine the trials and tribulations of a premature baby and a single mom up in one ball of wax and still come out sounding like an anthem of personal victory — no small feat. It is, of course, the theme from Reba’s WB network show Reba. “Forever Love” from 1998’s album If You See Him is a winning heartbreak ballad with a hook that you aren’t going to find it easy to forget, while the 1994 track “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is one of Reba’s female empowerment anthems and demonstrates as well as any song how McEntire’s managed to appeal to the pop side without abandoning her overall country sound and roots.
Another source of McEntire’s appeal has to be the way her songs speak to and about the lives of modern women without becoming condescending or in any way judgmental. “She’s checking out every man in the room right now / Don’t go telling her about right or wrong / She’s been alone for way too long” she sings on “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”, while on “The Fear of Being Alone” she squelches a paramour’s temptation to try to make more of a one night stand than is really there without a trace of bitterness or irony. I’m sure there are those who would argue with McEntire’s vision of female empowerment, but it’s hard to argue when her audience, like that of the Dixie Chicks, is largely made up of women who feel that she speaks right to them.
Of course, she does occasionally deviate from this message, as her 1991 cover of the Vicki Lawrence hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” demonstrates. The Bobby Russell-penned song is one of a group of country “story” songs that earned near-mythical status due to its irresistible nature and somewhat mysterious lyrics (others of this ilk include Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and McEntire’s own “Fancy”) and her cover of it is great fun. When Reba sings “Little sister don’t miss / When she aims her gun” it’s not hard to imagine her as the gun-toting, adultery-avenging protagonist of the story.
Of the other new tracks on Greatest Hits III, “Myself Without You”, another strong woman song about a newly single woman who “can even see myself / Falling in love with somebody else / Ready to take that chance again / Cause I know now / What I didn’t know then / That the world still turns and the sun still burns / And that’s what I’ve learned without you” is the best. It fits in with the rest of McEntire’s repertoire and could well become a charting hit itself. Kenny Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man” is a pretty melody and arrangement, its lyrics about a singer-songwriter who’s stayed in the game a little too long and become a little too cynical. It’s a fitting end to the album, and though it would probably sound clichéd and maudlin coming from Rogers, McEntire pulls it off with a tender reading.
It’s doubtful that Reba McEntire will be going away any time soon, whether country music continues to be popular of not. She was here before, she’s here now, and she will be here tomorrow, count on it. Yes, she’s a survivor and a part of the popular music landscape that just can’t be ignored.