Rumor Has It: 30th Anniversary Edition
It’s difficult to overstate how significant Rumor Has It was for Reba McEntire’s career.
As the eighties became the nineties, McEntire was coasting on her success from the earlier decade. Her shows were selling well, as were her albums, but she wasn’t breaking any new ground.
Within two years, nearly all of the country stars who broke through in the seventies and eighties would be swept off of country radio, overwhelmed by the vital young talent that was breaking through. How did McEntire manage to not only survive, but kick her career into a much higher gear, establishing herself as the genre’s first multi-platinum female superstar?
The answer can be found on Rumor Has It. While taking some time off to have a baby, she spent her usual hours searching for new material. Her co-producer Jimmy Bowen was not enamored with the material that she was choosing, and McEntire soon set up a meeting with him to cordially break off their partnership. Bowen had been instrumental in grounding McEntire in new traditional country, but their previous two studio albums, Reba and Sweet Sixteen, had drifted toward an anti-septic middle of the road sound. The contrast was made especially clear on Reba Live, which breathed fiery new life into the stodgy studio versions of songs from those albums.
What McEntire needed in 1990 was a co-producer able to rise to the ambition and sheer force of nature on display in her live shows, and she found that partner in Tony Brown. McEntire truly lets loose on Rumor Has It. Not just in her performances, but in the adventurousness of her selected material. She growls with the ferocity of a hungry new artist on the album opener, “Climb That Mountain High,” and takes the country ballad to new heights on “You Lie” and the title track, demonstrating an ability to wrench emotion from every single note.
There’s a theatrical quality to the best tracks on Rumor Has It. Her tackling of “You Remember Me,” a Jesse Winchester showbiz number that is made all the more compelling by the gender switch. She manages to surpass the surly dismissiveness of Winchester’s original, while also weaving in shades of betrayal and sadness completely absent from his recording. “Fallin’ Out of Love” remains among her finest moments on record, as she takes on the role of supporting a heartbroken friend. As that friend builds in confidence, so does McEntire’s performance, until she makes the rafters ring with a celebratory, “He never knew you like he’ll be knowing you now!”
And then there’s “Fancy.” McEntire would eventually make it her standing encore performance, replacing the a cappella “Sweet Dreams” that closed out her show for many years. It’s easy to understand why. McEntire strips the haunting guilt and shame out of Bobbie Gentry’s original recording, and replaces it with unabashed fortitude. When she calls out those “self-righteous hypocrites” that call her bad, she’s looking them straight in the eye, as if daring them to make the same claims to her face. She transformed “Fancy” into an anthem for feminists and the southern poor alike, thoroughly rejecting the labels of those who didn’t work half as hard to get to where they are, and giving herself full credit for getting there without any of the same advantages of those who’d point a finger at her.
Rumor Has It would be historically significant for “Fancy” alone, but the 30th Anniversary Edition makes the mistake of thinking that’s the case. We’re treated to a dance mix and an acoustic live performance of “Fancy” as the only two bonus features of this reissue, which sells the importance of the entire set short. We get no demos, no alternate takes, and no live performances of the album’s key hits, despite the existence of the 1991 Reba in Concert video that featured the earliest stage performances of “Fancy,” “Rumor Has It,” and “You Lie.”
As Mercury prepared to release a three-disc deluxe edition of The Woman in Me for the 25th Anniversary of that landmark Shania Twain album, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by this set, which does little more than just mark the date and celebrate “Fancy.” Heading into 1991, I hope that the UMG team working on the Shania set checks in with the Reba team. Next year marks the anniversary of Reba’s biggest and most artistically significant album, For My Broken Heart, and a dance mix of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” isn’t going to cut it.