100 Greatest Women, #4: Reba McEntire

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#4

Reba McEntire

2008 Edition: #6 (+2)

Her rise to the top was slow, with four years passing before her first top ten single and a decade before she earned her first gold album. But with time, Reba McEntire would emerge as country music’s most popular female artist, with a longer run at the top than any other female hit-maker in history. Along the way, she made the transition from singer to entertainer, becoming a powerful force on both the stage and screen.

McEntire was born and raised in Oklahoma, the daughter of a championship steer roper. As a child, she joined brother Pake and sister Susie in The Singing McEntires, but she also pursued her family rodeo tradition. Back then, the only competition open to women was barrel racing, and she became an adept competitor. By 1974, she was majoring in education at an Oklahoma university, but still singing in her spare time. That year, she sang the national anthem at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, which led to her discovery by Red Steagall.

The industry veteran pushed her to pursue a Nashville recording contract, and with his help, the young redhead recorded some demonstration tapes during her spring break from college. Mercury Records was impressed, and she joined their roster in late 1975. Thus began the slowest ascent to superstardom of any woman in country music history, as her debut single “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand” stopped at #88 in 1976. Three more singles fared no better, but all four were included on her debut album Reba McEntire, which also included covers of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues” and Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You.”

McEntire got her first taste of success in 1978, when a double-sided single of duets with Jacky Ward reached #20, one of which was a cover of the pop hit “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” This gave a boost to her sophomore set Out of a Dream, which produced five top forty hits, the most successful being her revival of “Sweet Dreams (Of You),” her take on the Patsy Cline hit reaching #19. Later in her career, McEntire would bring the house down when she sang the song a cappella as an encore. Four years after her first single, she finally hit the top ten in 1980, with “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” the lead single from her third set, Feel the Fire. She did even better with her fourth album, Heart to Heart. It was her first album to chart, largely on the strength of her first top five hit, “Today All Over Again.”

By this time, McEntire was saddled with a bland country-pop sound, and her producers were telling her to calm down the vocal curlicues in the studio that she let loose on stage. Despite being out of her comfort zone, her songs kept doing better, and her fifth album Unlimited produced her first two #1 singles in 1982, “Can’t Even Get the Blues” and “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving.” However, album sales were still low, and when her sixth album for Mercury, Behind the Scene, produced lower-charting hits than its predecessor, McEntire jumped ship. After seven years with the label, she walked away from Mercury and signed with MCA Records.

Her debut for MCA, Just a Little Love, was saddled with strings and the production was dated. The title cut was a top five hit, but the album was a personal disappointment for McEntire, who resolved to change her musical direction. She received support from Jimmy Bowen, who became label president soon after. He later confessed that he was thinking about “dropping the redhead,” but he was impressed by McEntire’s grit when they met for the first time. With his blessing, McEntire set out to make a traditional country record, which she dubbed My Kind of Country. When the producer of the album took off the traditional touches that McEntire had demanded, Bowen intervened and backed up his artist, taking over production duties himself.

The album established McEntire as a force in country music. It produced a pair of #1 singles, “How Blue” and the Harlan Howard classic “Somebody Should Leave,” and was nominated for CMA Album of the Year in 1984. It also kicked off a four-year run at both the CMAs and ACMs in the Female Vocalist races, the longest consecutive run in both shows’ histories. At the ACMs, McEntire would come back and win three more times after the first run, setting another record for most overall wins.  She would hold all of these records until the winning streak of Miranda Lambert this decade.

McEntire was now gaining acceptance within the industry and was an important force in the new traditionalist movement, but My Kind of Country and its follow-up Have I Got a Deal For You still weren’t selling as well as the awards would suggest. It was McEntire’s 1986 single “Whoever’s in New England” that became the career record she needed, as the ballad was accompanied by a music video that finally helped fans connect the voice they heard on the radio to the woman doing the singing. It served as the title cut for her next album, and won her a Grammy. In the fall of 1986, McEntire became the fourth woman to win CMA Entertainer of the Year. A few months later, Whoever’s in New England became her first gold record, with its successor What am I Gonna Do About You following suit shortly thereafter.

For the rest of the eighties, McEntire was a consistent gold-selling artist, as all of the albums that followed—The Last One to Know, Reba, Sweet Sixteen and Live—cleared that mark. She was a mainstay on country radio, having fourteen #1 hits under her belt, and her live shows were getting more ambitious, incorporating choreography and costume changes. But as McEntire recuperated at home from a difficult pregnancy, she felt a growing need to raise the bar musically. She switched co-producers from Jimmy Bowen to Tony Brown, the new head of her label, and sought to craft a more ambitious sound that could compete with the hot new country acts that had taken over the radio.

The result was Rumor Has It, which would quickly become her highest-selling solo album to date. The multi-platinum set had big hits in “You Lie” and the title cut, but it was her cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” that became a signature song, accompanied by a music video that bordered on mini-movie. McEntire’s star kept rising, and she was invited to perform on the Academy Awards in 1991. However, shortly before the big night, tragedy struck, as a plane carrying seven members of her band and her road manager crashed, killing all aboard.

McEntire was devastated, and poured her heart into the performance of “I’m Checkin’ Out,” which she did through tears on the Oscars. More so than at any other point in her career, she poured herself into her music, and the result was her 1991 masterpiece For My Broken Heart. The heartbreaking album dealt with issues of loss and missed opportunities, like a housewife who settled down too soon (“Is There Life Out There”), the career woman who missed her chance to settle down (“I Wouldn’t Go That Far”) and the woman who never got a chance to say goodbye (“If I Had Only Known”). The album even dealt with issues of a distant parent (“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”), elderly neglect (“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)” and mercy killing (“Bobby.”) The somber album remains her best selling studio set.

Throughout the early nineties, while young men dominated the country music industry, McEntire was the only woman who competed on the same scale. Her albums It’s Your Call and Read My Mind sold multi-platinum and stimulated sales of her older catalog, resulting in earlier eighties albums going gold and platinum. Her videos were better than anyone’s, and her stage show was a theatrical spectacle that put all other performers – male or female – to shame. She starred in high-rated network specials and sold out arenas across the country. Her autobiography, My Story, was a New York Times bestseller. She won a Grammy and another CMA award for her hit collaboration with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You,” and in 1995, she was named ACMs Entertainer of the Year, a full nine years after the CMA had given her the same honor.

She endured a backlash when her pop-flavored covers album Starting Over stalled at radio, but it still sold platinum, and she returned with her best album in years in 1996, What If It’s You, highlighted by one of her best singles ever, “The Fear of Being Alone.” In 1997, she co-headlined a popular tour with Brooks & Dunn, which led to their #1 duet the following year, “If You See Him/If You See Her.”

By that time, McEntire had become a popular actress, featured in films on the big screen (Tremors, North, Little Rascals) and small (Gambler IV, Is There Life Out There, Forever Love.) Though she continued to record, releasing a studio album in 1999 and a hits collection in 2001, her attention turned away from recorded music and to the stage. In 2001, she took over the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. Contrary to the myth often printed in the country music media, Broadway was not taken by surprise with McEntire’s stunning performance in the role, as producers had been clamoring for her to take over the part but were delayed by conflicts with her touring schedule. The theatrical elements of her stage shows had well-prepared her for the daily grind of Broadway performances, and she turned the show into a must-see for the first time, earning a Drama Desk and an Outer Critics award in the process.

McEntire premiered her sitcom Reba the following fall, on the small WB network, and that was a surprise success, running five seasons and firmly establishing her as a television star. The theme song for the show, “I’m a Survivor,” was her last country hit for a couple of years, until she returned to music in 2003 with Room to Breathe. The four-year gap between studio albums was the longest in her career, but she was rewarded with her first solo #1 single in seven years, “Somebody.” The album sold platinum, as did her follow-up compliation, Reba #1’s, in 2005.

Her album Duets fared even better in 2007, becoming her first to top the pop albums chart upon its release. The breadth of McEntire’s influence and popularity was demonstrated by the wide array of collaborators on the project, which included legends like Carole King, pop stars like Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake, and some of the women who claim her as a major influence, like Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill.

Reba Duets turned out to be McEntire’s swan song for MCA Records, but it kicked off a run at radio and retail that was unprecedented for a woman of her age.  Signing with Valory Records, McEntire released Keep On Lovin’ You in 2009.  In addition to breaking the record for the most #1 country albums by a female artist, the set became her second to top the all-genre Billboard 200.  The second single, “Consider Me Gone,” topped the singles chart for four weeks, twice as long as any previous McEntire single had spent at the summit.  The hot streak continued with All the Women I Am in 2010, which produced another #1 single, “Turn On the Radio.”  After trailing Dolly Parton for many years, McEntire moved into first place among all women on the country singles chart during this time period, setting new records for both #1 and top ten singles.

In 2011, McEntire was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  That same year, she starred in Malibu Country, her second network sitcom, which aired for only one season, despite being the year’s top new comedy among all television viewers.  In 2015, she released Love Somebody on Nash Icon Records, once again topping the country albums chart and producing another top forty single with “Going Out Like That.”  In 2016, she returned to #1 on the country singles chart with her contributions to the multi-artist hit, “Forever Country.”  She partnered with Cracker Barrel that year to release her third seasonal collection, My Kind of Christmas, which received an expanded release in 2017.

Rather than make another radio-friendly country album, McEntire pursued her dream of releasing a gospel collection with the double disc set, Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hope.  Yet another #1 album, it sold more units than her previous studio set and earned McEntire her first Grammy Award in 24 years.  Most recently, McEntire became the first country artist of her generation to be recognized at the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, which will be held in December 2018.

Now an active recording artist for more than forty years, McEntire continues to add to her already impressive musical legacy. In a time when young female artists are struggling to be acknowledged at all, her career longevity provides hope that there can still be a seat at the table for a woman in her sixties.

Essential Singles

  • Can’t Even Get the Blues, 1982
  • How Blue, 1984
  • Somebody Should Leave, 1985
  • Whoever’s in New England, 1986
  • One Promise Too Late, 1987
  • You Lie, 1990
  • Fancy, 1991
  • Fallin’ Out of Love, 1991
  • For My Broken Heart, 1991
  • Is There Life Out There, 1992
  • The Greatest Man I Never Knew, 1992
  • The Heart Won’t Lie (with Vince Gill), 1993
  • Does He Love You (with Linda Davis), 1993
  • The Fear of Being Alone, 1996
  • Consider Me Gone, 2009

Essential Albums

  • My Kind of Country, 1984
  • Whoever’s in New England, 1986
  • Rumor Has It, 1990
  • For My Broken Heart , 1991
  • What If It’s You, 1996
  • Room to Breathe, 2003
  • Love Somebody, 2015
  • Sing it Loud: Songs of Faith and Hope, 2017

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Career Achievement Award, 2010
    • Entertainer of the Year, 1995
    • Home Depot Humanitarian of the Year Award, 2002
    • Mae Boren Axton Award, 2017
    • Top Female Vocalist, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1995
    • Top Music Video
      • Whoever’s in New England, 1987
      • Is There Life Out There, 1992
      • Forever Country, 2017
  • British Country Music Awards
    • International Female Vocalist, 1999, 2000
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Entertainer of the Year, 1986
    • Female Vocalist of the Year, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987
    • International Artist Achievement Award, 2000
    • Vocal Event of the Year
      • Does He Love You (with Linda Davis), 1994
  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 2011
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Country Collaboration With Vocals
      • Does He Love You (with Linda Davis), 1994
    • Best Female Country Vocal Performance
      • Whoever’s in New England, 1987
    • Best Roots Gospel Album
      • Sing it Now: Songs of Faith & Hope, 2018

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #3. Maybelle and Sara Carter (The Carter Family)

Previous: #5. Emmylou Harris

13 Comments

  1. Her skill as a song interpreter and ability to straight up sell a song is her greatest asset and gave her huge hits with songs that would have failed in lesser vocalists’ hands. Combine that with her business savvy and work ethic and it’s clear her longevity has not been by accident.

  2. Reba is one the greatest to ever do it in country music. She is one of the greatest vocalists of her generation. Reba has a knack for conveying emotion, mainly heartbreak so easy. She has classic singles and albums. Whoever’s in New England, Is There Life Out There, Does He Love You, You Lie, and of course Fancy are classic country singles and some of my favorite Reba singles. I love Consider Me Gone as well. For My Broken Heart is one of the greatest country albums of the 90’s and of all time. It was an emotional and deep album. Reba sung her heart out on that album. Of course, I love her My Kind Of Country, Whoever’s In New England, Rumor Has It, What If It’s You, and Love Somebody albums. Love Somebody shocked me a bit. I didn’t know how great that album was going to be and I hear it and I was blown away. It’s easily the best album Reba has recorded since For My Broken Heart. Just Like Them Horses was classic Reba. I love the Reba sitcom, it’s one of the most underrated and best sitcoms of the 00’s IMO. Reba deserves to be Top 5. She has a amazing legacy that’s been growing more bigger as time has gone on.

  3. I love Reba. I would have place her just a bit lower though. The one think she lacks that most others in the top 10 have are Iconic songs that will last the test of time. I don’t believe any of her songs (except Fancy) are songs that you would immediately think of when someone mentions – what are the greatest songs of all time you wound not think of her. Other than that I do agree she is great.

  4. To me, Reba chose popularity over excellence. She might have the greatest female voice ever in Country Music which enabled her to lift her output above the material she chose.
    The mythology says that Kathy Mattea, when she was at a crossroads in her life, was asked did she want to be Reba or Emmylou? Seems to me that is the big thing in Country Music today, do you want to be popular or do you want to make music of substance that will still be meaningful in decades to come.

  5. I was gonna comment earlier today, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it was just from the shock of seeing entries 4 and 3 in the countdown instead of the Olivia Newton-John stuff you promised? Guessing we won’t see those album reviews, either!

    Anyhoo, allow me to bury the complaints and talk some Reba (McEntire). Back when I was younger, I knew Reba entirely for her sitcom, which my mom watched repeats of all the time. It was also Reba’s cover of “Fancy” that made my dad realize country music could actually be good – he once dismissed the genre as a totally ridiculous one thanks to things like the Bellamy Brothers’ “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me”. Of course, naturally, I developed a love of Reba’s music as I got more and more into country.

    Probably my two favorite Reba songs were actually Mercury releases – “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven” and “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving” (both of which made the same 45 back when “…Leaving” was her current single, but not as a double A-side, nor as a back-to-back hits reissue – “Heaven” was the flip!). One of my favorite YouTube finds ever also involves Reba. More specifically, this segment of the Grand Ole Opry’s 70th-anniversary special in 1996, in which she does Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”… as a duet with none other than the Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul herself! That special aired the year before Barbara called it a career, so I’m glad she had that foresight. If only the same could be said about Trisha Yearwood and Linda Ronstadt.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=tavvNiHid44

  6. I’m happy to see her bumped up a couple slots. On my personal list, she’d come in second behind Dolly. I can understand Loretta’s higher ranking though (even if her voice has never really been my cup of tea and her commercial and creative peak came before I was born). Honestly, I wouldn’t have even really had any qualms if Reba had jumped ahead of the Carter Family (ducks).

  7. Of course Reba belongs in the Top 5, though I cringe at the thought of “Fancy” being viewed (and apparently treated) as her signature song. I think I most enjoy listening to Reba’s earlier singles from the 1980s. Reba’s popular covers of “Fancy” and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” are quite possibly my least favorite of her many, many terrific hits.

  8. @Michael,

    I could see Reba continuing to rise if we do this again down the road and she remains as prolific as she’s been in recent years. One thing that the non-Carter members of the top five have in common is that they have continued to release music that is good and interesting and well-received into their golden years. Loretta Lynn just put out one of the best albums of her entire career, amazingly enough.

  9. Never liked Reba’s vocals. I posted my own list on July 22, 2008, about a year before I began following CU. It was just a list of my 40 favorite female and male country artists – no great write-ups like Kevin has provided here. (I’ve enjoyed reading them) My top 5 females were Suzy Bogguss, Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea and Natalie Maines. Reba, Emmy Lou, Loretta and many others didn’t make my list. If i remade the list today, i would make many changes. But the 3 ladies I just mentioned still would not make my list. My knowledge of country music doesn’t come close to Kevin’s but I like what I like.

  10. Judged strictly on her post 1990 output, Reba would not be in my top 100, but based on her pre-1990 recordings she would easily be in my top 8 so I guess that would put her somewhere in my top 30 favorites, but that is not the same thing as judging Reba as far as her importance which I think Kevin has pegged fairly accurately

  11. I remember loving her sheer dominance at the time. She was the only female during the boom from the late-80s up until Shania who was not just competing on the same level but surpassing her male counterparts. She had the biggest tour in country music multiple years in the 90s and several times was the only woman among the Top 10 tours in any genre. For My Broken Heart was the first album by a female country artist to be certified double platinum. Also as Kevin mentions she more than any other artist at the time capitalized on the music video boom.

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