Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: Reba McEntire, “How Was I to Know”


“How Was I to Know

Reba McEntire

Written by Cathy Majeski, Sonny Russ, and Stephony Smith


#1 (1 week)

March 29, 1997

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

March 21, 1997

Reba repeats at No. 1 with another excellent single.

The Road to No. 1

After returning to No. 1 with “The Fear of Being Alone,” Reba McEntire repeated this success with her second single from What if it’s You.

The No. 1

“How Was I to Know” confirmed what “The Fear of Being Alone” had suggested: Reba McEntire had noticed the sophisticated and compelling work being produced by her female peers and adjusted her approach to material accordingly.

It’s a nervy and complicated lyric, featuring McEntire in a familiar role of heartbreak, but now demonstrating resilience in the face of it.   The song works as well as a standalone record as it does as an interrogation of her earlier material.  She certainly had expressed feelings of helplessness around being left alone, but unlike with most of her earlier hits, this time she’s doing just fine without the man who left her behind.

Her reading of the second verse line – “I gave up on myself” – is revelatory, the sound of a woman directing ire at her own underestimation of herself, and ultimately becoming her own greatest champion.

 The Road From No. 1

What if it’s You just missed out on a third No. 1 single, with “I’d Rather Ride Around With You” peaking at No. 2 on both charts.  This was followed by the title track, which went top twenty. What if it’s You went double platinum, and is still her most recent multi-platinum studio album.   After a top thirty charity single (“What If”), Reba returned to No. 1 with a unique dual label release. We’ll cover that in 1998.

“How Was I to Know” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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Next: Trace Adkins, “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing”


  1. It really says something how overshadowed Reba was during this time period due to the success of all the other female stars at this time; Trisha, Martina, LeAnn, Shania, Pam, Patty, Deanna ect ect. I know MCA was pushing Trisha Yearwood in the award circuits (finally) at this time, but Reba really did continue to shine.

  2. Love this song so much! This is probably one of Reba’s most cool and unique sounding songs from the 90’s. I really love the sound of that opening guitar that reminds me a bit of The Byrds and the unique sounding steel guitar throughout. Even the drums on this track sound really good. I just really enjoy the alternative/soft rock influence of this record, and it still sounds so fresh today! I also like the positive lyrics and how the narrator realizes she’s totally fine after a breakup from a guy who was likely not worth it, anyway. One of my favorite lines is “What I was so afraid of turned out to be my freedom in disguise.”

    Once again, this song brings back so many great memories from early 1997 for me. Specifically, I always remember this as a song that was always on the radio when Donkey Kong Country 3 had recently come out. It was one of the new games I’d often play whenever my dad and I went to Best Buy (I was still busy playing Country 2 at home, as well), along with the games on the hot new console, Nintendo 64, like Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64.

    I also got this song on side A of the Ray Stevens tape I just mentioned in Trace Adkins’ “Thinkin’ Thing,” and it’s also the same tape I talked about in Ty Herndon’s “Living In A Moment” and Patty’s “Lonely Too Long.” On that side A after five Ray Stevens songs is: “Lonely Too Long” by Patty Loveless, “Not On Your Love” by Jeff Carson, “Wild Angels” by Martina McBride, “Living In A Moment” by Ty Herndon, “Hillbilly Rock” by Marty Stuart, “Emotional Girl” by Terri Clark, “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” by Alan Jackson, “This Is Your Brain” by Joe Diffie, “How Was I To Know” by Reba, “455 Rocket” by Kathy Mattea, and just a little snippet of Jeff Carson’s “Holdin’ On To Something” at the very end. Again, this was a tape I would listen to countless times on my Walkman throughout early 1997, despite it being a faulty Memorex tape that would sometimes get stuck and the tape would almost get chewed by the machine. If you read my comment on Herndon’s song, there was a certain point during “Living In A Moment” that the tape would usually threaten to stick, but if it didn’t, most of the time it was smooth sailing from then on. However, it did get stuck one time and nearly got ruined on the Alan Jackson song, and even by the time it got to “How Was I To Know,” I’d usually still be watching it like a hawk, lol.

    When listening to “How Was I To Know” on the tape, one of the lyrics that always stood out to me in the first verse was “Swept up inside a whirlwind,” because I was still obsessed with tornadoes thanks to the movie Twister, lol. It’s also another song that brings back great memories from the Spring of 1997, and like Tracy Lawrence’s “Better Man, Better Off” and Joe Diffie’s “This Is Your Brain,” this is another song that reminds me of when I was playing TNT: Evilution from Final Doom a lot on the computer at home. :) Even that excellent electric guitar solo in “How Was I To Know” really takes me back to those days.

    Man, I am SO bummed that “I’d Rather Ride Around With You” missed the top spot! That’s probably my favorite of all the What If It’s You singles. It’s such a perfect feel good cruising song that still sounds so fresh and timeless today. Not to mention, it’s yet another part of the soundtrack to the trip my parents and I took to Maine in August 1997, and it bring back so many great memories. :) The song’s wedding related lyrics also always reminded me of the Julia Roberts movie, My Best Friend’s Wedding, which we saw that year. That song’s video was also the first one I ever saw featuring Reba’s shorter haircut.

  3. I like considering Reba’s later output as an “interrogation of her earlier material.” Being able to successfully pivot perspective and personality is a commendable accomplishment that many artists simply are unable to pull off. That change is really a testament to her maturity as an artist and her savvy as a businesswoman. She stayed relevant and kept pace with the younger generation of female stars, on her way to becoming an icon and living legend.

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