Reba McEntire is the closest modern country will ever get to the artistic heights of its pioneering female vocalists. Sure Tanya Tucker had her run but the booze, powders and Glen Campbell took their toll. Shania Twain was just a Nashville/Pat Benatar Frankenstein project. And all the others were B-teamers shoving out their shingle on Music Row in hopes of at least landing a spot a county fair or a gig shilling corn chips. When it comes to heavy-hitting mamas like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, McEntire is right smack in the middle. Since releasing her self-titled debut in 1977, she has been exposing the hidden and yearning elements of the feminine psyche better than even her counterparts in mainstream rock and R&B could.
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It's the reality in McEntire's songs that bring folks back every year to the Rodeo to see her. Tuesday night, in front of mostly female crowd at Reliant, she came out looking every bit the "Queen of Country" that she is. And nearing 54 years of age, the redhead seems to only be getting more wily and purring. Compared to girls less than half her age, she shows infinitely more swagger and grace than four Swifts and an Underwood slapped together. It's those hips and that condescending stare she gives in her songs that will always win out over youthful crossovers. She came out to 1999's "So Good Together" with her voice even richer and huskier more than 30 years removed from her debut. Over the years it's evolved from cowgirl howl to a full-on mama growl. We spent the first half of Wednesday night's set in the press box, and her voice had zero defects in it. Here is a lady who doesn't need Nashville's popular live crutch, the Auto-tuner, to correct her vocals. Take that...um, most everyone on KILT and 93Q right now. What gets McEntire over so well with the female demographic isn't her looks or her sass. It's always been her storytelling. The desperate party girl in "Heart is a Lonely Hunter" or the silent longing of a woman who made choices early on, that still leave her wanting more, in "Is There Life Out There?" The teenage prostitute in "Fancy" goes through hell to get to heaven and comes out snarling and victorious on the other side.
Her characters are direct and open, sparing vagaries for decisive dialog. All of her songs chronicle experiences in women's lives, and McEntire can inhabit each one of those characters in a way that isn't pandering but completely empathetic, strong yet still vulnerable. Her cover of Kelly Clarkson's "Because Of You" makes one realize that behind the former American Idol's radio hit, lurks an even deeper emotion that Clarkson could never mine. That deep sadness and inner strength will always be McEntire's indelible stamp on country music and pop in general. And yes, she did mention 1990's cult cinematic triumph Tremors, where she obliterated an underground "graboid" with an elephant gun. McEntire even sang one of her songs "Why Not Tonight?" from the film's soundtrack for the hordes of us in the audience whose only agenda last night was to she if she would in fact talk about the Kevin Bacon vehicle.