The last few editions of this series have focused on the neotraditional movement, a back-to-basics approach made in response to the fading Urban Cowboy phenomenon. Now, the thing about trends is that you’ll always have artists – especially newcomers – who adapt their sound to fit the mold of whatever is currently popular. If they’re smart, they’ll further adapt when the winds change yet again. It sounds cynical in nature, but it’s a pragmatic approach that’s served certain careers well, without any additional needed qualifiers. This next album somewhat pulls from that savvy business model, but it also feels like a moment where the artist who made it came into her own. Of course, there’s far more to the story than just that, so … onward!
It’s hard to summarize Reba McEntire as an entertainer, and for good reason.
After all, she’s one of those few performers who crosses generational divides to represent different points of interest for people. She’s somewhat like Dolly Parton in that regard: business-savvy, a hard-worker, and a cultural icon. Even despite getting her start as a performer in the late 1970s, Reba McEntire is one of those artists who I, as someone who grew up with 2000s country music, can say was a part of my childhood. That does mostly speak to my fondness for her underrated television show of the era, but she was a consistent hit-maker until the 2010s – and even dominated the format in the early ‘90s, before icons like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain came along.
In a way, it’s fitting that I’m discussing an album of hers for this series in close proximity to my piece on George Strait and his sophomore album, because both artists experienced the sort of rare career longevity that few can rival, and for mostly the same reasons.
Although, unlike him, you might get conflicting reports on what McEntire’s sound in the ‘80s actually was or represented. And that could be due to a surprisingly rocky start in the late ‘70s. Her first single for Mercury Records, “I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand,” released in 1976, stalled, as did her next few singles. She wouldn’t score her first No. 1 hit until 1982, with “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” a song she had to actually fight for to record.
She left Mercury in 1983 dissatisfied with the material given to her and the direction of her sound, only to sign to MCA Records and find herself in a similar situation, with a 1984 debut that was slick, bombastic, and representative of the era and her past material in the wrong way. Her chart success often fared better than before, but as an actual artist she was still frustrated, and decided to meet with Jimmy Bowen, who had then recently become president of MCA’s Nashville division.
The irony? She met with him hoping for a change in artistic direction; he met with her planning to drop her from the label. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. After meeting her, Bowen actually decided to allow McEntire to make another album, with her own chosen producer and complete control over the song selection. So, with a Harold Shedd-produced effort comprised of material old and new … well, we didn’t quite get McEntire’s actual breakthrough moment – that would come just a couple of years later – but we did get the album that put her on the map as a serious artist to watch. And it’s also one where any showcases of potential from before came into full force.
But again, I’d like to temper expectations over the “why” of all that by circling back around to my opening point, in that it’s hard to summarize McEntire as an entertainer. That’s mostly a note on a rooted sound, because while the easy narrative with 1984’s My Kind of Country is that it’s her neotraditional movement – which, yeah, it is – it’s really just one part of her entire repertoire. If I had to nail down just the basic core of what makes her a compelling performer, I’d say it’s her powerhouse voice that suits her theatrical bent and dramatic flair exceptionally well. It’s why I think she’s just as commanding in a contemporary country-pop mold as a reserved traditional one.
But as far as this album is concerned, where the string sections of her earlier work are gone in favor of slow, classic country compositions and waltz cadences on an album absolutely dripping with fiddle and pedal steel … hell, I’d say it’s just her just adding to her resume. Again, though, just two years later she’d record “Whoever’s in New England,” a bigger, splashier, more sentimental ballad that reflected the general tone of her earlier work, just with a much sharper focus. So it does make My Kind of Country a very interesting discussion point in her overall discography, and a more complex one than one might think.
Again, though, focus on the core of the album and I think the general change isn’t so much just one in sound, but one that comes through McEntire’s interpretative skills as a performer. She’s more confident and energetic here, even despite how the bulk of this album spends its time in slow, heartache-drenched territory. Not only does it help some great melodies pop like on “That’s What He Said” and “Don’t You Believe Him,” but the focus on greater restraint also showcases her knack for emotional nuance. At least here, in playing to more reserved territory her distinctive presence alone makes so many of these heartbreaking songs of loss absolutely crushing, especially when she has to play the role of the partner left behind who can’t move forward.
I’m going to invite further comparisons to George Strait with that, because like him, McEntire has never quite been an albums artist so much as a fantastic singles artist. And she’s also always been more known for her performance skills than her writing; an artist who is better at turning already established pieces into her own. A fitting note for this album, given that it’s split evenly between new material and covers by the likes of Faron Young (“He’s Only Everything”), Carl Smith (“Before I Met You”), Ray Price (“I Want to Hear It From You”), Nat Stuckey (“Don’t You Believe Him”), and Connie Smith (“You’ve Got Me Right Where You Want Me”). And yet, unless you’re very well-versed on your country music history, you might not notice or care, because there is a consistency and seamless quality to this album that shows a level of care. It’s why I called it an addition to the resume rather than a trend-hopping project, because McEntire knows and respects her history, and she does nearly every song here justice.
Of course, that’s also an odd strength for this album to carry. Again, McEntire has always used the power of melodrama to her advantage, so it might be easy to overlook an album as understated as this one is in its lack of real flashiness. But I think that’s where the writing comes through to work in tandem with her delivery exceptionally well. Perhaps a bit broad and piecemeal at points in delivering pure devastation consistently, but there are a lot of subtle complexities to the relationship ballads on display. Most of the time her characters are caught in a sort of purgatory as they struggle to move forward from past relationships and trauma, whether it shows in an inability to trust again (“That’s What He Said”, “Don’t You Believe Him”) or pure denial over what’s actually left (“It’s Not Over (If I’m Not Over You),” which Mark Chesnutt eventually turned into a hit).
But I think it’s the moments where her characters are still in some technical fragment of a relationship that hit the hardest. Maybe not so much on one of the album’s big hit singles, “Somebody Should Leave,” which is a devastating divorce-themed song I do still like, even if some of the societal framing and language feels a tad dated at points. But certainly on the “I Want to Hear It From You” cover, where she’s at her wit’s end with a partner and just wants to know if there’s an actual future there, or if they just should cut ties and end the misery. Again, brutal, as is “Everything But My Heart,” the only track here to adopt some ill-fitting ‘80s polish, but also one that eventually sands it away to reveal a devastating look at someone used for lust, not love.
Really, finding the moments where this album allows itself to breathe or adopt some levity is a difficult task. If I had to nitpick, I’d maybe say that the strong commitment to the slow-paced, organic style does come at the cost of greater variety in tempo, even if something like the jumpy, bouncy “Before I Met You” cover – a rare love song on the record – feels out of place regardless; it can be hard to strike that tonal balance, after all. But leave it to McEntire to turn a similarly cutesy, poetic album closer about finding love again on “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)” into a really heartbreaking plea for stability after enduring so many shakier moments. It’s another cover not only elevated by McEntire’s delivery, but even by its placement on the album, which helps it end strong. In other words, My Kind of Country wasn’t just a great country breakthrough project, it was also a career rejuvenation that put McEntire on the map for even bigger projects to come. But I think that it stands proudly (and subtly) as an artistic refinement and sports the bones of what’s made McEntire such a compelling performer throughout the years … well, that might be the greatest reward.
Join me next time, where we’ll turn away from the neotraditional movement to discuss another movement – the overlooked class of ‘86, starting with Steve Earle’s Guitar Town.