CMT Giants: Reba Proves the Trisha Theory

The Trisha Theory: Once Trisha Yearwood sings or records a song, it has been sung definitively. No other vocalist need bother tackling it; they will inevitably pale in comparison to Yearwood’s performance of the song.

I’ve come to develop this theory over time, listening to Trisha Yearwood completely always improve on, and often completely eviscerate, previous performances of songs she chose to tackle. Some examples:

  • “Woman Walk the Line” – written and recorded by Emmylou Harris, then covered by Highway 101.
  • “New Kid in Town” – The Eagles classic that was the only song that sounded better by the new country artist on their tribute album.
  • “It Wasn’t His Child” – a Sawyer Brown holiday tune that Yearwood spun into greatness.
  • “Try Me Again” – Linda Ronstadt wrote it and her version still can’t compare to Yearwood’s cover.
  • “Lying To The Moon” – songwriter Matraca Berg stopped performing this song for a few years, she was so blown away by Yearwood’s cover of it.
  • “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners” – Rebecca Lynn Howard sang her heart out, but couldn’t hold a candle to Yearwood’s cover of her song.
  • “A Lover Is Forever” – Rosanne Cash cut it first, but Yearwood knocked it out of the park.

Going back through Yearwood’s studio albums, it’s shocking how few of the great songs she recorded first have since been covered, great as they are. I think this is because lesser singers are too intimidated to dare try. Yearwood’s perfect control and phrasing, along with her keen understanding of where the line between genuine and over-emotion is drawn, make her versions of songs end up the definitive ones.

Nothing demonstrated this to me as clearly as the recent CMT Giants: Reba tribute concert. I’ve been waiting to blog on this show until a YouTube clip of Yearwood’s performance of it finally surfaced. The conceit of the show was to have younger female vocalists (where were the men?) cover Reba’s material, to honor the legend’s contributions to music. There was a problem, though: Reba McEntire is one of the most distinctive, talented vocalists in the history of recorded music.

They looked almost like sacrificial lambs, one female star after another tackling Reba’s hits and paling in comparison to the redheaded diva. Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Nettles, Faith Hill and Martina McBride tried, and failed, to deliver worthy performances. Even Reba’s legitimate peers, in terms of talent – Dolly Parton and Wynonna – didn’t match, let alone improve on, Reba’s classic performances of the songs. To her credit, LeAnn Rimes came close, with her touching performance of “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.” The tortured backstory between Rimes and her own father made the performance more powerful, but still couldn’t reach the heights of Reba’s original.

Then, towards the end of the show, Trisha Yearwood emerged to perform “If I Had Only Known,” one of the best songs Reba McEntire has ever recorded. She chose the song after the death of her band and tour manager, and although the video clip isn’t anything special, it does provide a visual element to an amazing performance. I’ve been listening to that song for fifteen years, and it’s always been a personal favorite. I’ve revisited it frequently when dealing with sickness and death around me. It seemed impossible to ever hear it with fresh ears again, but then, Yearwood emerged and performed the song live, not only rejuvenating it for me, but improving on the original, thus proving the Trisha Theory.

She’s never been my absolute favorite singer, but if there’s a more talented and nuanced interpreter of song, I haven’t heard them. She’s untouchable.


  1. Trisha is an excellent, almost transcendent, singer but I don’t quite agree that her material simply can’t be covered. It’s difficult, to be sure, but not impossible. For instance, I always preferred LeAnn Rimes’ version of “How Do I Live Without You”.

    Trisha is certainly among the elite, in a class with the likes of Patsy Cline, Peggy Lee and Susannah McCorkle as an interpreter of a lyric

  2. I can recommend a good audiologist

    Seriously though, Yearwood had the country hit while Rimes had the A/C hit with the song and sold many more copies. Curiously, many people seemed unable to tell the two versions apart. While I liked the Rimes version of the song better, the truth is that I didn’t particularly like the song at all, regardless of the version

  3. The comparison about copies sold with “How Do I Live” is trivial; MCA only released 300,000 copies of Yearwood’s single and refused to produce anymore once they sold through; Curb kept Rimes’ “How Do I Live” single in print for years, even releasing a dance remix single that also counted towards singles sales.

    Rimes did have a big pop hit with the song, but once again, MCA failed to actively promote Yearwood to pop stations, so Rimes had the market all to herself. In the end, both albums sold 4 million copies, and Yearwood beat Rimes for the Grammy and CMA Female Vocalist Award that year, so I give her the edge. I also think she sang the song much better; Rimes sounds completely emotionless to me. Doesn’t help that Wilbur Rimes’ production is completely anemic. It’s not my favorite Yearwood song, but I think she absolutely shreds Rimes’ version.

  4. I didn’t like the arrangement on Yearwood’s version, but that’s part of the reason why they make vanilla and chocolate ice cream, Kevin. We’ll simply have to agree tp disagree on this one.

    I have all of Yearwood’s CDs but only a few of Rimes’ discs, so I obviously agree with you that Yearwood is the superior vocalist

    It appears that we’ll also disagree on Reba McEntire. I liked everything Reba recorded up to and including 1988’s REBA. After that I feel that she “jumped the track”, only occasionally finding her way back with the rare great song.

  5. I forgot to mention that songwriter Diane Warren picked Rimes to demo the song, and even though the film producer chose Yearwood to do the song in the film, refused to pull the right to record it from Rimes.

  6. I completely agree about Yearwood– her voice is exceptional, but it’s her interpretive skill that puts her leagues above any of her contemporaries. There are plenty of other singers I love, but Trisha’s the best of the best, and has been for an awfully long while now.

    Of her well-chosen covers, the only one that I don’t think she improved upon was “Seven Year Ache”– it’s a testament to what a great vocalist Rosanne Cash is that Trisha didn’t change too much of her original phrasing, and the two of them sound phenomenal together.

    On the other hand, there are few things I wish for *more* than that she’d stop singing with Garth Brooks– their voices don’t sound good together at all, regardless of how in love they are. “Try Me,” the duet with Ronnie Dunn on _Jasper County_, really drives that point home, I think.

    The “Reba: Giants” show was interesting– I tend to side with Paul that Reba’s output from 1990 forward is more “campy” than “good,” which I say in part because my uncle’s signature drag number is “Fancy.”

    But Martina McBride did exactly what she did on _Timeless_, which is show off her impressive technical precision and complete inability to give a song any kind of presence; Wynonna (speaking of drag shows… what the hell has happened to her?) lost me with her asinine “To Thine Own Self Be True, to all my sisterfriends out there” interjection; Faith Hill hit some truly rank notes and lost the “You Lie” head-to-head with Trisha, who covered the song on the ACM anniversary show back in the summer (also available on Youtube); and Dolly looked in need of a sandwich.

    I prefer Kelly Clarkson when she sticks to her new millennium Pat Benetar stuff, but I thought she sang pretty well on two songs I don’t like at all.

    But Trisha, yes, was the standout.

    As for LeAnn Rimes… I liked “Blue” well enough as a novelty record, even though I’ve never thought she sounds a thing like Patsy Cline (anyone know if Mandy Barnett will ever release another album?), but her entire catalogue from “Blue” through _This Woman_ sounded, to my ears, like someone strangling a Muppet, set to some overproduced adult-contemporary pap. But _This Woman_ shows that she’s really starting to mature into a solid interpreter– it’s not a *great* record, but it’s a very pleasant surprise that includes a couple of stellar singles. I agree that she was the “runner-up” on the Reba show– but her performance also shows where she still has room to improve, since she still takes big, deep breaths in the middle of a few key phrases in the song.

    And I don’t like either version of “How Do I Live.”

  7. I agree with you 100% Yearwood is the superior vocalist in the music industry. Noone comes close to her. I love every song she has ever sung. She is the greatest interpreter of lyrics out of any artist

  8. I don’t think theres anyone out there that can match Trisha’s voice or skill. Her voice has matured over the years and seems to ony get better.

    As for the Giants show. I think Trisha was the best hands down (thats why i posted it on youtube). No one even came CLOSE to her performance, which was surprising. I expected Wynonna or Dolly to have great performances, but i have to say i was def. let down. I think Faith was the worst of the night. Her verison on You Lied was horrible! She def. ruined the song. I don’t think anyone can ever sing it like Reba, but she was absolutely HORRIBLE! Trisha did do an amazing job with the song on the ACM (i also posted that on youtube)

    o….nd Trisha def. has the best version of “How Do I Live.” LeAnn just doesn’t have the emotion that Trisha does. She’s no where near where Trisha is voice-wise. And she’ll be lucky if she ever is!

  9. There can’t be any comparison of Reba’s version of IIHOK to Trisha’s Giants performance. Reba singing that song came out of the uncomparable devastation of losing her friends and band members. Trisha sang a great tribute but no one could best Reba on that song. Trisha’s HDIL surpasses LeAnn’s version but the “This Woman” CD proves that LeAnn is an amazing country singer and should continue down the country path. Kelly Clarkson singing WHIHFY was fun and light, but when she belted out the bridge during DHLY, she out-performed BOTH Martina McBride and Linda Davis. Pop and country radio would both benefit if there was more singing and passion like that. To follow up Paul’s post, “Reba” was an amazing CD but don’t discount “Rumor Has It” as one of Reba’s great country CDs. Climb That Mountain High and the admittedly campy Fancy notwithstanding, any one of those other tracks would be a welcome relief to the ears of today’s country listeners. And props to Faith Hill for trying to cover You Lie which proves the Reba Theory: there are some songs that can and should only be sung by Reba McEntire.

  10. Lost in the shuffle here is the sense that, no matter who the singer, no one singer can deliver the definitive version of each and song they attempt. Nat King Cole was as good a singer as ever lived (I know people who would swear that he’s the greatest ever and they might be right) but his cover of “Wolverton Mountain” did not match Claude King’s version although no one would argue that Claude King belonged on the same planet as NKC.

    Interestingly, both the Rimes and Yearwood recordings of HDIL were releasedf in England with Rimes reaching #7 and Yearwood reaching #66 (Rimes has had considerable success in the UK since then; Yearwood has not) . I’m not sure that factoid proves anything as I get the sense that all of us here regard Yearwood as the superior vocalist, but perhaps not everyone shares that view

  11. I think everyone agrees with that idea Paul. I’ve read interviews with Martina where she talks about not having regrets from passing on songs that were huge hits for other singers. I’m paraphrasing, but she admits that the songs were good but not good for her voice or style. Jonathan was dead-on in his previous post about Timeless. Just because you can sing, that doesn’t mean you can sing everything.

    Props to HDIL for hitting #7 but I’m not sure about comparing British chart success. Having a hit on the British charts can be somewhat of an anomaly as one of the most recent hits across the pond was a ringtone by an electronic frog. An electronic frog?!

    I agree with Jonathon about LeAnn’s stellar singles from This Woman. If Nashville wasn’t still ticked at her for going pop, the first three releases would have all gone to No. 1.

  12. I would have to agree with the Trisha theory…Shes an amazing…gifted…lady and vocalist…totally untochable…How could a person even compare How Do I live by leann rimes to Yearwoods version ? They dont sound the same…Rimes version sounds cheap…yearwood takes you to the point to where you feel the song…Rimes couldnt do that..Maybe thats why it failed to make the movie and they asked Yearwood to do it…u think so ?

  13. i can’t find any of the clips u were talking about, do u have any other source where i can find them besides youtube? it would totally be appreciated!

  14. I agree with just about everything said about Trisha (she is one of my favorite singers of this particular era), but with two caveats:

    1) I don’t think she added anything new to “New Kid In Town” that wasn’t already there in the Eagles’ original version, other than maybe trying to sound almost like a dead-ringer for Linda Ronstadt.

    2) I also don’t think her version of Linda’s “Try Me Again” trumps the 1976 original (and Trisha herself admitted as much, telling Linda once, “I stole from you.”). That said, though, I do think she is one of the few female country artists of today that really understands Linda’s approach, beyond the mere carbon copying of the classic country-rock sound of Linda’s that so many of them engage in.

  15. Am I the only one out there that really wished Trisha would have been matched with someone, possibly McBride, possibly not…to sing “Does He Love You” I could really hear Yearwood dive into Linda Davis’s part. Reba and Trisha did this song in Cheyenne Wy. a few years back……if ever a reason for a road trip

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