Written by John Moffat
#1 (1 week)
January 19, 1985
Reba McEntire had two No. 1 hits and her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy under her cowgirl belt by the time “How Blue” started rising up the charts, so it may seem odd that this is the record that truly marks her arrival.
But it is. Reba McEntire had been a reliable hitmaker for a few years, but this is the first appearance of Reba.
The journey to My Kind of Country was a rocky one. New MCA label head Jimmy Bowen hated her debut album for the label, Just a Little Love, which was drenched in strings but didn’t have fiddle on a single track. Only the title track reached the top ten, but her industry popularity was enough to power her to that first CMA win. Bowen paired McEntire with established producer Harold Shedd for her next album, and she was actively involved for the first time in her career, directing the studio musicians to add fiddle and steel where she wanted them. Satisfied with her efforts, she returned to the road.
When she got back into town and heard the finished tracks, she flew into a rage and demanded a meeting with Bowen. Shedd had removed all the fiddle and steel, and replaced it with syrupy strings and keyboards, undermining her as an artist. McEntire insisted that Bowen finish the album with her, and he did so without receiving a proper producer credit. Her original arrangements were restored, but Bowen asked for one career-alerting change from McEntire.
He noticed that her studio vocals were nothing like how she sounded on the road, where she bent and twisted notes with a fiery twang. She responded that her producers up until that point had told her not to sing like that on the record. It was simply too country and too stylized for the market, in their view. Much like with George Strait during this time period, a tectonic shift was made in how Reba records were crafted. Now, the backing tracks would be designed to fit around her vocal, instead of her holding back so she could fit in with what the musicians had already recorded.
Seriously. Listen to Reba McEntire’s singles in sequence, and “How Blue” is a revelation right out of the blue. One of the greatest vocalists of all time had been hiding in plain sight for years, and now she had finally arrived. Even better, she did so with a fantastic song in its own right. John Moffat’s lyric is of a piece with classic country music themes, but it’s way of presenting them was fresh for the time:
If I sink any lower, I’ll go underIf I cry anymore, I’ll go blind Lord, there ain’t no relief for this missing you grief How long can you torture my mind?
The coolest thing about this record is how McEntire makes it a conversation with herself in the chorus, doing her own call and response as she handles the lead and background vocals herself. It’s a fearless choice that few singers could pull off, and she makes it work so beautifully.
And y’all, as good as “How Blue” is – and it’s an all-timer, no doubt – it isn’t even the best No. 1 single from this record. That one’s up next.
“How Blue” gets an A.
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