Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Reba McEntire, “Little Rock”

“Little Rock”

Reba McEntire

Written by Bob DiPiero, Gerry House,  and Pat McManus

Radio & Records

#1 (2 weeks)

August 15 – August 22, 1986


#1 (1 week)

September 13, 1986

A year before “Little Rock” went to number one, Reba McEntire was looking for material for her first album with Jimmy Bowen as her official co-producer.  They came across a great song, “She’s Single Again,” that they arranged as a traditional country ballad.

The process for putting a song on hold back in the day was a tricky one, especially when multiple songwriters were involved.  At the same time McEntire chose to cut the song, it was also pitched to Janie Fricke.  Both ladies recorded it, but Fricke got it out to radio first.  Her pop-flavored version is one of her most engaging and enduring hits, and you can get a pretty clear picture of the mid-decade transition that country music was experiencing through playing these records side by side.

When selecting material for Whoever’s in New England, McEntire chose “Little Rock” and recorded it.  She soon found out that history was repeating itself, and that Fricke was also slated to cut the song.  This time, they were able to work things out with Fricke’s team and McEntire got the song to herself.

I’d argue that “She’s Single Again” was a better fit for Fricke, but “Little Rock” is pure Reba.  Those jazzy curlicues that she wasn’t allowed to put on “Can’t Even Get the Blues” are in full force here as she leaves behind a man who gave her plenty of material comforts.  “All that don’t mean nothin’,” she sings, “when you can’t get a good night’s lovin’.”

I’ve often referred to McEntire as country music’s last victim queen before the next wave of female superstars guided the genre to more independently minded material, culminating in the breakthrough of Shania Twain in the mid-nineties.  But I have to reassess that after a fresh listen to “Little Rock,” a song that was on Reba McEntire’s first hits collections for MCA, and in turn, played in the car incessantly when I was a child.

I think back to the emotional anguish of “Somebody Should Leave,” then hear her complete liberation on “Little Rock,” and I realize she was already a lot more versatile in the mid-eighties than I’d given her credit for.  There isn’t a moment of hesitation in her performance as she leaves her rich husband with nothing but the clothes on her back.  It’s more than just a “Satin Sheets” retread because of the euphoria with which she leaves.  No looking back over her shoulder. No moment of regret for the love and luxury lost. She’s gonna go out and get her good night’s lovin’, and her inattentive husband can keep the little rock:  “When he finds this ring he’ll see, he keeps everything but me.”

Shortly after “Little Rock” topped the charts, McEntire got a big piece for her mantle.  After becoming the third woman to win Female Vocalist of the Year three times, she became the fourth woman to win CMA Entertainer of the Year.  Another woman wouldn’t win until Twain in 1999.  Whoever’s in New England made her a superstar, and it was only the opening act of her lengthy run at the top of the genre.

“Little Rock” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. …red dress aside, has she ever been depicted more beautifully? my first encounter with reba was “the last one to know” on bob kingsley’s “american country countdown” one sunday morning during holidays in the us in 1987 – a truly lasting one it turned out to be. hence, i discovered “little rock” only when i was catching up with her previous releases a little later, which was a lot more than worthwhile.

    there is this old story of a swiss (country) radio dj, who met her at the crs in nashville in the early 80s. she had been sitting around there all alone and appreciated the attention she got from him and his friend from abroad so much. from “ugly duckling” to majestic swan – she may have taken her time, but how she clearly succeeded. years later, they run across each other in paris, france, and she still remembered that uplifting meeting back then. obviously, not every future superstar rocked crs as garth did a few years later, when his time there was coming.

  2. I still think that the best “Little Rock” song was Ferlin Husky’s mid 60s hit “I Hear Little Rock Calling”. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it should have been.

  3. Reba’s energy sparkled like a diamond with this single that refused to look anywhere but forward. It portended something new and wonderful. The narrator’s enthusiastic expectation of better days once she slips off her wedding ring paralleled country music’s confident exploration of a suddenly bright and exciting future that was about to paradoxically both honour and break free from its own past.

    “Little Rock” is this era’s hype song.

    Country music is about to step up to the national plate and make a statement about the genre’s appeal, potential and reach.

    If the burgeoning New Traditionalist movement needed a walk-up song, this is it.

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