Reba McEntire - "Keep On Loving You"
By: Bobby Peacock
Somehow, at the beginning of the 2000s, Reba McEntire managed to lose her footing at country radio, with more and more of her singles missing Top 10 than since the early 1980s. Granted, some of the chart decline is justified, given that Reba was shifting her focus to acting; the sudden insurgence of country-pop divas may have also put a dent in her success, not to mention the fact that hardly anyone over their mid-40s tends to have a hit in any genre. Now, Reba is on a new label, and her acting is mostly on the back burner. If there were ever a time for her to prove herself as one of country music's leading females, now is the time.
The album starts off on the right foot with the Jason Sellers/Neil Thrasher/Wendell Mobley co-write "Strange." It's a fun little number about the satisfaction of finally getting over that heartache — maybe a bit faster than she had expected, because she's out buying dresses and wasting time. Reba hasn't had an up-tempo single since 2004's "Love Needs a Holiday" (her first single since 1977 to miss Top 40!), so "Strange" made perfect sense as a lead-off. Although it blasted into the Top 40 at #39, it crashed and burned just outside the Top 10, and fell from the charts on the eve of the album's release. Shame.
Some of the songs recall the 1990s-era Reba both in themes and production. One example is "Consider Me Gone," an easy-going mid-tempo which focuses on the tail end of a fading relationship. The melody and production are a bit more stripped-down than most mainstream country radio, so this should do well as the second single. "But Why", another Sellers/Thrasher collaboration, is a standout track. The production is fairly mellow and the lyrics paint a picture of a nearly devastated woman: she can go on living on her own, but why would she? "She's Turning 50 Today" also takes a bittersweet tone, centralizing on a brokenhearted female who just packs up and drives off after her husband leaves — on her 50th birthday.
"Eight Crazy Hours (In the Story of Love)" is one of the mellowest songs on the album. Despite being the third song on the album that features a woman crying, it brims with sharp, writerly details about a woman who goes from being an emotional wreck to loving her family even more than before. Reba's version pales slightly in comparison to Shelly Fairchild's (from her extremely underrated 2004 album Ride — go find it, now!), but it certainly wouldn't have been out of place on any of Reba's earlier albums.
Reba also tackles a couple of funkier songs: "Just When I thought I'd Stopped Loving You" has an almost R&B groove on the chorus, contrasting with its rapid-fire verses. Like "Strange," it's a bit of a different sound for her, but it works. "I Want a Cowboy," originally the second single from Katrina Elam's debut, also has a strong groove, but it doesn't have too much to say: she wants a real cowboy, but spends most of the song focusing on what she doesn't want from her man instead. (There is also a dance mix, which just grafts on a drum loop and guitar track and cranks up the reverb.) The Jamie O'Neal co-write "Pink Guitar" features a heavily syncopated melody backed by hard-driving guitar. It tells of an ambitious, musically-inclined female who gets herself a guitar. While it's not quite as strong as Wynonna's similarly-themed "Girls with Guitars," it's still a highly engaging listen.
"Nothing to Lose" takes a fast-paced, bluegrass approach, making it one of the most traditional songs on the album; it's loaded with guitar and piano solos. In fact, it's so well-executed melodically that you hardly even notice that it's the third song in a row that involves a woman running away from her troubles, or that the lyrics barely even brush on what she's running away from — we just know that she "used to have it all and now [her] heart is gone." "Maggie Creek Road" also keeps a fairly traditional sound, and tells a very bold story of a mother who gets revenge on the man who raped her daughter. Reba is no stranger to controversial songs (such as "Fancy", which this song recalls melodically), so it's nice to see her finally doing one again. Closer "I'll Have What She's Having" is a bouncy little Western swing number with a fairly cute theme: noticing a giddy woman with a good-looking man, the narrator asks to have what she's having.
Several of the songs are just a tad overproduced: "Over You" is buried in a mountain of compressed guitar solos and cellos, "Eight Crazy Hours" could've done without the strings, and the title track features a gratuitous guitar solo. No doubt, most of the overproduction is the fault of Mark Bright, whose work with Carrie Underwood is among the most bombastic in country. Other songs falter lyrically: "I Keep On Lovin' You" rhymes "you" with itself in the chorus, and both it and "Over You" feel more like a set of unconnected stanzas than a song. "Pink Guitar" becomes the zillionth song this decade to name-drop Johnny Cash just for the sake of name-dropping Johnny Cash; Minnie Pearl, of all people, also gets a shout-out in the same song.
These days, females are a harder sell than ever in country music (Taylor and Carrie notwithstanding), so if a female artist wants to make waves at radio, she has to pull out all the stops. Keep On Loving You may not be a blockbuster of an album, given the sometimes-sterile production, imperfect songwriting and repeated themes. Despite the flaws, the album has more than enough redeeming qualities, and with any luck, the right single choices should reverse the long, slow decline that her musical career has been on since the beginning of the decade, and prove that age should not be a factor in an artist's success.