After experiencing a dip in sales with 1995’s Starting Over, Reba McEntire again changed musical directions, abandoning the glossy production of that covers album, in favor of a more stripped-down, organic sound. She also teamed up with a new co-producer, John Guess, and used her road band instead of studio musicians for the first time. These changes paid off on both an artistic and commercial level. Reba sounds more relaxed and relies less on vocal acrobatics than she did on her several preceding albums, and whereas radio had been lukewarm to the single releases from Starting Over, What If It’s You produced four hit singles, two of which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks Chart, one that reached #15, and one that made it all the way to #1. Her sales also picked up; What If It’s You was certified double-platinum by the RIAA for sales in excess of 2 million units.
The opening track, “How Was I To Know”, while not my favorite from the album, was the biggest hit from this collection, reaching #1 in Billboard in March 1997. It begins with some electric guitar licks that set the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this collection would not be marred by the pop excesses of her two previous albums. It is followed by “The Fear of Being Alone”, the album’s lead single which was composed by Walt Aldridge and Bruce Miller. This is a catchy tune which seems specifically designed to get Reba back in the good graces of country radio. And it did just that — barely missing the top spot in Billboard when it peaked at #2 in December 1996. The next single, “I’d Rather Ride Around With You”, also peaked at #2. A light-hearted song about a bridesmaid who goes AWOL from her cousin’s wedding to go riding around town with a male friend. The song was linked to the rather lackluster title track when the same set of actors was used for the music videos of both songs, creating a story arc. Whereas in the first video, McEntire delcares, “I’d rather ride around with you”, in the second one she laments that she may have failed to recognize her soulmate and allowed him to slip through her fingers. “What If It’s You” was the only single from the album that failed to make the Top 10, stalling at #15.
My favorite track from the album is the excellent “It Don’t Matter”. Written by Tommy Lee James, it examines a theme familiar to country music — the insignificance of material possessions in marriage in which passion has been lost. In some ways, it is an updated version of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic “Two Story House”:
We’ve got a nice little house on a quiet little street, but it don’t matter.
A two-car garage with new a Cherokee, but it don’t matter.
‘Cause we don’t ever seem to talk anymore,
And you don’t hold me like you did before,
We’ve got everything we wanted and more,
And now I know, and now I see,
That nothing matters if you don’t love me.
Another highlight of the album is the Jerry Salley and Melba Montgomery-penned “Close To Crazy”, in which the singer questions her sanity while trying to get over a lost love. Reba provides an excellent understated vocal performance, and she and co-producer Guess wisely avoid a bombastic arrangement, on a track that would have tempted many other artists and producers to oversing and overproduce.
Sandwiched in between these two gems is “State of Grace”, the one true clunker on the album. It tells the story of a Walmart employee who one day gets fed up with the monotony of her existence and hits the road in search of a better life. It reminds me somewhat of one of my least favorite McEntire singles, “My Sister”, which would appear on the Room to Breathe album several years later. Though on the surface the songs are quite different, both are examples of the Female Empowerment Anthem, which would become a dominant theme at country radio in the early 21st century.
The remaining tracks never rise above the status of filler, though they are all pleasant to listen to and none of them reaches the low point of “State of Grace”.
What If It’s You has occasionally been criticized as an album that pandered to country radio in order to get more airplay. While there is some truth to the charge, one has to bear in mind that back in 1996 the quality of music played on country radio was generally much higher than is the case today. After two consecutive albums (Read My Mind and Starting Over) that moved progressively closer to mainstream pop, Reba needed to re-establish herself as a country artist rather than a pop diva. In that sense, What If It’s You succeeds in spades. Although the sound was contemporary, it was her most country album of the decade. Unfortunately, the change in musical direction was short-lived, as Reba’s follow-up album found her drifting back towards slick production and power ballads.
What If It’s You can be purchased at iTunes (digital) or Amazon (CD or digital).