Reba McEntire is a smart woman who moved into TV sitcoms when she became too old for country radio. Now, as a legacy artist who is about to leave a longterm Vegas residency, she has reimagined her catalogue to kick it into the new century. Not 10, not 20 but 30 tracks are included in the project. I thought she’d record an album with an orchestra but, what with social distancing, this is the next best thing.
I’m a Survivor is on two of the sets, Fancy on all three, which makes sense because they are probably her most beloved songs, the former as the theme to that sitcom, the latter the encore of her live set. I like evergreen hits The Greatest Man I Never Knew and The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, songs with depth and structure, and Reba handles them well in these new versions, which may be because she has to sing them on pain of refund.
The first disc, Revived, updates her catalogue in a traditional manner, essentially bringing contemporary production to the old hits. In fact, to avoid disappointing her acolytes, in her live sets she likes to perform medleys at the top of the show, usually including Can’t Even Get The Blues, which actually makes me feel better especially with the stylish ending, and Walk On, which is punchy with the contemporary production that removes the ‘Nashville circa 1989’ from the original version.
The bluesy arrangements of the medley Take It Back and Why Haven’t I Heard From You, which she performed on The Tonight Show to promote the album, often ends her set proper (before she encores with Fancy). Not many country songs in 2021 would celebrate ‘the crazy little thing they call the telephone’ (although I am sure Brad Paisley could have shoehorned it into one of his).
Whoever’s In New England is another solid mainstay of her set; the Revived version helps cement the song’s classic status, with snare taps and soft acoustic guitar which set Reba’s vocal centre stage. She was the top country singer of the era, bringing choreography into her shows, before Garth started zipwiring himself over his audience. Sometimes the song takes centre stage, as it does on the sombre waltz You Lie, here moved down a few steps from B-flat to G to allow Reba’s voice to soar in her advanced years.
For My Broken Heart is another classic, with Reba praying and crying herself to sleep having lost her beloved. In part I get my wish here, as there’s a beefy string section and some delightful picking to underscore her emotion.
Disc Two offers the ten remixes. There’s a fun version of You Keep Me Hangin On inspired by Kim Wilde’s cover. I’m A Survivor has been remixed effectively by Lafemmebear, while Dave Aude has been entrusted with Fancy, Why Haven’t I Heard From You (which pulsates pleasantly) and I’m Gonna Take That Mountain, all of which would happily fit into any set on Broadway by a DJ helping to entertain a hen party.
Some remixes are less successful despite their good intentions. Eric Kupper turns The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, turning the hanging of an innocent man into a Giorgio Moroder homage, and Does He Love You, which is a less successful remix. The Tracy Young remix of Turn On The Radio, a number one from 2010 that sounds like a Carrie Underwood reject, is odd because Reba’s syncopated delivery simply doesn’t work over a straight 4/4 disco stomp.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, remixed by Ralphi Rosario, does work, especially with the guitar licks poking out of the production. Little Rock is given a 4/4 euphoric beat by Stonebridge that matches Reba’s insouciance of taking off her wedding ring to find a man ‘who really cares a lot’.
Finally we get ten tracks Revisited, produced by Reba and Dave Cobb, whose work with Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson has brought blues and rock into mainstream country music. The main event is a duet of Does He Love You with Dolly Parton, best known for that other love triangle Jolene. I wonder if, say, Carly Pearce and Lauren Alaina will bring the song back into popular conscience for a generation not used to these modern classics which are now 30 years old. It’s like current musicians doing Wonderwall and More Than Words by Extreme. Another factoid is that Reba has now had 72 charting singles.
The Fear of Being Alone is given fiddle and banjo accompaniment, while Consider Me Gone dials down the drums while Reba sets out her ultimatum. There’s rootsy fiddle and classic-sounding piano on Somebody Should Leave, One Promise Too Late and How Blue, all of which foreground Reba’s voice. Cobb has also worked with Brandi Carlile recently, proving he can frame female voices as well as male ones. The Last One To Know has some suitably mournful pedal steel and a top arrangement, while New Fool at an Old Game keeps the initial sound of the original studio version.
The Revisited set ends with a torchsong piano-led version of I’m A Survivor and Dave Cobb’s take on Fancy that recalls Sympathy For The Devil. It completes my favourite disc of the three, and well done to Reba for taking a chance on a remix album, which her loyal fans will view as a curio. They will prefer the stage-ready first disc but I remain curious to see if Reba goes out on a more acoustic tour in the next few years. More power to her, whatever she does.