With “I’m a Survivor,” her current single, Reba McEntire examines and extols the life of a woman who overcomes adversity through hard work and strength of character.
This has long been one of her favorite themes. It surfaces in such “strong women” songs as “I’m Not That Lonely Yet,” “Fancy,” “Fallin’ Out of Love,” “For My Broken Heart,” “Climb That Mountain High” and, most famously, “Is There Life Out There,” a fairly cautious lyric which the singer transformed through a music video and a movie into a plucky feminist manifesto.
While much has been made — and rightly so — of McEntire’s pioneering work in videos and films, concert staging and career management, she also deserves praise for recording songs that raise serious political and social questions.
“I Heard Her Cryin’,” from the 1986 album, What Am I Gonna Do About You, dwells on the damage parental discord can do to a young child: “I didn’t think she was old enough to know/Oh Lord, we must have hurt her so/When she begged you not to go/I heard her cryin’.”
In her 1987 collection, The Last One to Know, McEntire tackled the always sensitive subject of immigration with “Just Across the Rio Grande.” What makes the song so emotionally effective is that it unfolds through the eyes of a young Mexican father who feels separated from “paradise” by the tantalizingly narrow Texas stream. “He stares at the river and curses the future that he can’t understand/He knows [his] child would have a chance, just across the Rio Grande.” Here there is no talk of quotas, welfare rolls, crime surges or job losses — just the baring of a universally understandable human dream.
“The Stairs,” which also appears on this album, is about a woman whose drunken husband physically abuses her, leaving her with cuts and bruises to explain. “And she fell down the stairs again/But it hasn’t happened since she don’t know when/Was it in spring when she packed up the kids, or maybe in winter with his job on the skids/Oh, but just like before she’ll have to pretend that she fell down the stairs again.”
Recorded and released in 1991, shortly after her band was killed in an airplane crash, McEntire’s For My Broken Heart is her darkest and most powerful album. It contains “Bobby,” an implicit endorsement of “mercy killing” — and of accepting responsibility for it; “All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go),” a heartbreaking look at an old woman abandoned by her family in a nursing home; “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” which reveals the scars inflicted on a child by her dutiful but emotionally distant father; and the aforementioned “Is There Life Out There.”
McEntire spotlighted the perils of promiscuity in “She Thinks His Name Was John,” from her 1994 album, Read My Mind. “Now each day is one day that’s left in her life/She won’t know love, have a marriage or sing lullabies/She lays all alone and cries herself to sleep/’Cause she let a stranger kill her hopes and her dreams.”
More than most country artists, McEntire has avoided songs that are frothy and ephemeral in favor of those that have something important to say. But her greatest point of departure from standard country fare is that her songs tend to look forward to a better life instead of backward to a mawkishly idealized one.
This year marks McEntire’s 25th season as a recording act. It’s time to start thinking Country Music Hall of Fame.