Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Reba McEntire, “How Blue”

“How Blue”

Reba McEntire

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 blindLord, there ain’t no relief for this missing you griefHow 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.  

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

Previous: The Oak Ridge Boys, “Make My Life With You” |

Next: Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”

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  1. Hoo-boy. Yeah, this was a good one. Pretty much all the songs on that first Greatest Hits album were my favorite Reba singles from that decade.

  2. Also, I did not know that bit about Harold Shedd and the arrangements. I’d be interested to know his reasoning behind that.

    • Me too. It wasn’t only Reba who would voice frustration over his dismissiveness in the studio. Shania Twain had similar issues with him when she recorded her debut album, when she wanted to record her own songs and he deemed them not as good as the ones he found for her.

      Ironically, it was Twain’s songwriting and Mutt’s production that took her career so supernova that her terrible debut album with Shedd eventually went platinum. So he made some bank on it anyway.

  3. I absolutely love all the back story behind the production and recording process of this single and Reba’s entire album.

    Ditto for George Strait’s “Does Dort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” album.

    Kevin, will you reveal your sources? Is this info shared in Bowen’s auto-biography? Maybe you were a fly on the wall in the recording studios! Maybe your doctorate is on Jimmy Bowen and Nashville!

    However you came to assemble it, it is compelling and appreciated.

    This single certainly announces the arrival of liberated artist poised to super nova, the colossal explosion of a country music star.

    • Bowen and McEntire’s autobiographies, Billboard Book of No. 1 country hits, and contemporary trade magazine articles, plus various books I’ve read over the years (Alanna Nash’s Behind Closed Doors, Bufwack/Oermann’s Finding Her Voice, etc.)

      I think I’m the only one to ever point out that Reba won Female Vocalist before the impact of “How Blue”/My Kind of Country, though. They were released shortly after the ceremony.

  4. I was kinda surprised when I learned she won Female Vocalist in ’84 before this album hit. I always chocked that one up to her signing to MCA earlier that year and that label throwing its weight behind the voting. Of course, I’m speculating.

    I didn’t know Bowen finished production duties on this album either, and I should have. Hell, I created a namesake blog from this album. He’s not credited (nor is Reba) until her next LP. Thanks for sharing that. I’ve read all the books you mentioned except Bowen’s biography. I really should, I guess. I did watch an interesting interview with him recently (he talks a lot about Reba, and this album in particular, in the beginning).


    • What an amazing interview. Thank you for sharing it!

      The MCA theory makes some sense. Perhaps they realized that Barbara Mandrell wasn’t going to win again and shifted their efforts to support Reba, who had earned her first nomination in 1983 while still on Mercury.

      It took a lot of nerve on her part to change labels, but I’m glad she did. Ditto for Patty Loveless switching from MCA to Epic.

  5. I absolutely love this song. Easy A. Once again 85 and two hardcore country songs have already hit #1. This prompted me to revisit the “My Kind of Country” album. really good record. Kevin maybe an suggestion for something in the future but maybe listen to albums by your favorite producer’s. Jimmy in this case. By doing a deeper dive on him I was pulling up albums from a variety of artists. Billy Dean, Reba, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, JR, The Oak Ridge Boys, Barbara Mandrell, George Strait, The Bellamy Brothers, Crystal Gayle, Kim Carnes, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Lee Greenwood, Pirates of the Mississippi, Garth Brooks, Conway Twitty, John Anderson and Suzy Bogguss to name a few lol. And that’s just some in the Country Field.

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