Reba McEntire’s rise to the top of the country music world was long and slow. Her first single for Mercury Records, 1976′s “I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand” peaked at #88 on the Billboard country singles chart, and the next few singles stalled in the 80s as well. She didn’t reach the Top 20 until 1979 and didn’t reach the Top 10 until the following year. She finally scored her first #1 in 1982 with “Can’t Even Get The Blues”, a song that had been intended for Jacky Ward, but which she fought hard to be allowed to record.
Dissatisfied with the material Mercury was providing for her, Reba left the label when her contract expired in 1983, and signed with MCA Records. Unfortunately, her tenure at MCA got off to a rocky start when she found herself in another situation where she had little say in the material she recorded. Her 1984 debut album for the label turned out to be another slick, overproduced, pop-oriented record, that was almost indistinguishable from the albums she’d released for Mercury. A frustrated McEntire made an appointment to see Jimmy Bowen, who had just taken over the helm as president of MCA’s Nashville division, unaware that he had already decided to drop her from the label. Bowen quickly rethought his decision after meeting Reba in person. He not only allowed her to make another album, he let her choose another producer and gave her complete control over song selection. The result was 1984′s My Kind of Country, a pivotal album for Reba McEntire and for country music. Produced by Harold Shedd, it helped kick off the New Traditionalist movement and began a new phase of Reba’s career. Gone were the lush string arrangements and electric guitar solos, and back in front and center were the fiddle and pedal steel.
Two singles were released from the album — “How Blue” and the Harlan Howard and Chick Raines-penned “Somebody Should Leave” — both, of which became #1 hits. Five of the remaining songs were covers of older songs, since it was difficult to find new traditional-sounding songs in early 1980s Nashville. Reba spent hours going through the back catalogs of the publishing companies, to find the kind of songs she wanted. She ended up choosing songs that had been made famous by the likes of Faron Young (“He’s Only Everything), Carl Smith (“Before I Met You”), Ray Price (“I Want To Hear It From You”) , Nat Stuckey (“Don’t You Believe Him”), and Connie Smith (“You’ve Got Me Right Where You Want Me”). She sings each of them with an enthusiasm and zeal that had been lacking on most of her previous releases. It was obvious that she was finally singing the kind of music she really loved, and having the time of her life in the process.
The album opens with the lead single and #1 hit “How Blue”. The stripped-down, acoustic guitar and fiddle-driven arrangement was a far cry from anything McEntire had recorded before. Producer Harold Shedd had found the song and had to convince a reluctant Reba to record it. She initially felt that it was a man’s song, but she reconsidered when the line “ain’t you got a heart left in your breast” was changed to “chest”.
The tear-jerker “Somebody Should Leave” was chosen as the second single. Like its predecessor, it reached the #1 position in Billboard. An instant classic, with an emotionally charged vocal performance, this is the centerpiece of the album. Reba approached Harlan Howard when she was looking for material for the album. He played her a song that she didn’t like, so she turned it down as politely as she could. Howard responded that he was testing her to see if she could distinguish between a good song and a bad one — and to see if she had the nerve to tell him that she didn’t like the song. Reba had passed the test, and being allowed to record “Somebody Should Leave” was her reward.
“Before I Met You”, in addition to being a 1956 hit for Carl Smith, had also been recorded many other times, notably by Charley Pride and by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Reba puts her own stamp on the song, speeding up the tempo a bit, and giving a sassy vocal performance. It’s one of the highlights of the album, as is “You’ve Got Me Right Where You Want Me”, which was written by George Richey and Connie Smith. The song starts out softly, but builds up to a soaring finish, allowing Reba to showcase her trademark powerhouse vocals.
The remaining songs on the album were all new material. All of them were of sufficient quality that they could have been released as singles, but it was rare in those days for a country album to produce more than two or three singles. As a result, the gems “That’s What He Said”, “It’s Not Over (If I’m Not Over You)” and the most contemporary-sounding song in this collection, “Everything But My Heart” remained buried as album cuts.
My Kind of Country was the first Reba McEntire album that could be said not to contain any throwaway songs, and it outsold all of her previous LPs, reaching #13 on the Billboard country albums chart. The collection is often referred to as her first gold album, a distinction that actually belongs to 1986′s Whoever’s In New England. Reba’s increasing popularity in the 1990s, as well as the CD revolution, did help to eventually push it over the 500,000 units sold mark. At the time of its release it sold sufficiently well to ensure that Reba retained her contract with MCA, where she was to remain for the next 24 years. More importantly, it proved that there was still a market for real country music. This is Reba McEntire at her very best.
My Kind of Country is out of print in CD form, but is available digitally from Amazon MP3 and iTunes. Inexpensive used copies of the CD can also be purchased from Amazon.
Listen to My Kind of Country at Last FM.