Stronger Than the Truth
Reba McEntire returns to her traditional country roots, and the result is one of the strongest albums of her illustrious career.
Stronger Than the Truth is drenched in fiddles and steel guitar, with a few healthy doses of Western Swing to complement the classic honky tonk sounds that dominate the record. But her new album is more than just a genre exercise. What’s most significant is the album’s point of view, with McEntire allowing herself to be completely vulnerable for the first time in the post-Shania Twain era.
The tabloids can have their field day on how autobiographical this collection of woman done wrong songs is, but her own personal connection to the material is something that will only be known to her. Whatever her motivation for choosing (and in some case, writing) these songs, the women on Stronger Than the Truth are fully realized characters. “The Bar’s Getting Lower” may cover the same thematic ground as her #1 hit, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” but the details make the newer song much more vividly real. “Cactus in a Coffee Can” is a similar achievement, where what could have been a maudlin story song becomes something much more powerful because it goes for the little moments instead of the big ones, using the titular imagery as a quietly effective metaphor.
McEntire was the first major artist to be wise to Brandy Clark, and that singer-songwriter’s sense of song structure and fresh perspective makes “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain” a particular highlight. McEntire’s humor throughout the record ranges from light (the clever “No U in Oklahoma”) to dark (the majestic “The Clown”), but she keeps herself on the right side of the line between sorrow and self-pity. The title track is among the finest things McEntire has ever recorded, and it’s remarkable that it’s a song that she passed on several years ago. McEntire shot to fame on the strength of songs that the everyday woman could relate to, and she hasn’t gathered so many of those songs together in one collection since her early collaborations with Tony Brown.
It’s worth noting that the album’s power also comes from McEntire’s changing voice. She can rely less on power than at any time in her recording career, and that requires her to be subtle and stylistic in her choices. To paraphrase Patty Loveless, this keeps her from getting in the way of the songs. The lyrics are allowed to shine, and her inimitable Oklahoma twang is completely at home in the natural setting provided by live, rootsy instrumentation.
For any fan of McEntire’s classic albums, or just traditional country music in general, Stronger Than the Truth is highly recommended.