Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties, #1 - Reba McEntire

Though she's been active in country music for three decades now, country's favorite redhead was at the top of her game during the nineties.  It was an era when the women ruled country music, and Reba ruled the women.

She was born and raised in Oklahoma.  Growing up, she performed with her brother and sister as The Singing McEntires, and also competed in rodeo barrel-racing events.  She continued to sing while attending Southeastern Oklahoma University with plans of becoming an elementary school teacher.

She was discovered by Red Steagall when she sang the national anthem at an Oklahoma City rodeo, and with his assistance, she secured a recording contract with Mercury Records.  Her first few singles, starting with 1976's "I Don't Want to Be a One-Night Stand" turned out to be commercial flops, but she began achieving modest success in the early eighties.  She had her breakthrough with the traditional country-oriented album My Kind of Country, which produced the now-classic hits "How Blue" and "Somebody Should Leave."  After a slow rise to superstardom, Reba became one of Nashville's top hitmakers, and was showered with industry awards.  She won four straight CMA Female Vocalist Trophies between 1984 and 1987, and even snagged the coveted Entertainer of the Year award in 1986.

Reba continued to thrive well into the nineties with a more contemporary pop-friendly sound.  By that time, she had hopped labels, and was recording for MCA.  At the beginning of the decade, she released her fifteenth studio album, Rumor Has It.  She gave a stellar vocal performance of the song "You Lie," the album's chart-topping first single.

Though it didn't top the charts, the single "Fancy" became one of the best-known Reba anthems.  The song's narrator recalls being pushed into prostitution by her own mother as a way of escaping poverty, shakes her finger at those who judge her mother's course, and expresses her determination to rise above such a lifestyle, and to one day become a lady.

Tragedy struck on March 16, 1991, when a plane carrying seven of Reba's band members and her tour manager crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all on board.  Reba cites this event as the "darkest hour" of her life, having been devastated by the loss.  After the funeral, Reba shocked many be performing at the Academy Awards only nine days after the crash.  She performed the song "I'm Checking Out," from the Meryl Streep film Postcards from the Edge.  Reba was harshly criticized for returning to work so soon after the disaster, but she believed that her band would have wanted her to go ahead with the performances, and she was determined to do it for them.

Reba poured all of her grief into her 1991 album For My Broken Heart, which she dedicated to her deceased road band.  The album included many songs of sorrow, which Reba intended it as "a form of healing for all our broken hearts."  The album sold two million copies in nine months, and the first single and title track became another number one hit.

But it wasn't all heartbreak.  Reba showed some optimism on the song "Is There Life Out There," which was about a happily married wife and mother who wonders if she's missing out on something in life.  The story was fleshed out in the song's music video, in which Reba's character eventually earns a college diploma, viewing it as a chance to make her good life even better.  The video, which co-starred Huey Lewis as the character's husband, was one of the first country music videos to feature extensive amounts of character dialogue in order to further the storyline - a characteristic that raised some complaints from CMT, who nearly banned it for putting "message ahead of music."  But as it turned out, ingenuity was rewarded with a 1992 ACM Award for Video of the Year.  Reba also starred in a CBS-TV movie based on the video.

After selling platinum once again with her 1992 album It's Your Call, Reba had earned the right to release a second greatest hits compilation, which included a few new recordings.  One of those songs was the two-woman duet "Does He Love You," which portrayed the perspectives of both a married woman and her husband's mistress as they both pondered over the same question:  "Does he love you like he's been loving me?"

Originally, Reba's label was hesitant to release a two-woman duet to country radio, considering it a risky commercial maneuver that could alienate both radio and fans.  It was also risky to release it as a duet with a largely unknown background singer such as Linda Davis.  But when Reba's labelmates Trisha Yearwood and Wynonna Judd both turned out invitations to record the song with Reba, Linda ultimately filled the role of the other woman.  The risk paid off, as the song became a number one hit and one of Reba's most-awarded hits, netting a CMA Award as well as a Grammy.  It also provided Linda Davis with her first and only number one single.

Reba's success continued with her 1994 album Read My Mind, but she lost some traction on country radio with the follow-up Staring Over - a pop-flavored covers album.  But Reba rebounded in 1996 with What If It's You, an album that produced some of the finest singles of her career.  One of them what "The Fear of Being Alone," which featured a compelling storyline that was grounded in the realities of everyday life.

Reba toured with Brooks & Dunn in 1997, and that lead to them recording a duet.  "If You See Him/ If You See Her" was included on both of their studio albums, and became another number one hit.

Reba's momentum slowed down slightly with the turn of the millennium, and she became more involved in acting.  In 2001, she made her debut as Annie Oakley in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun.  Later that year, she premiered her WB sitcom Reba, beginning a successful six-season run on television.  She released a handful of new music during this period, including her 2003 album Room to Breathe, which produced her first number one single since 1998 ("Somebody").  She returned again in 2007 with the Reba Duets album, which featured collaborations with a who's-who of superstars and legends of both country and pop music - Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake, LeAnn Rimes, and Carole King, just to name a few.

After a few quiet years at radio, Reba made a strong comeback with her 2009 album Keep On Loving You, which yielded the four-week number one smash "Consider Me Gone" - Reba's first chart-topper since 2003, and the longest running number one single of her career.

There were many talented ladies of the nineties who were deserving of a spot on this countdown, but it was Reba who led the pack.  In addition to being one of the most commercially successful female artists of the decade, she also delivered many of the era's best-remembered classics.  She also received ample recognition from the award industry during the nineties, receiving five Entertainer of the Year nominations and three ACM Top Female Vocalist Awards.  Thus, in determining country music's greatest woman of the nineties, Reba was the clear choice.

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties
1. Reba McEntire
2. Trisha Yearwood
3. Patty Loveless
4. Shania Twain
5. Faith Hill
6. Pam Tillis
7. Martina McBride
8. Mary Chapin Carpenter
9. Lorrie Morgan
10. Kathy Mattea