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Getting to Know Her: Five Essential Reba Albums
Reba McEntire's life and career is examined in a new episode of CMT Inside Fame debuting Friday (Oct 10) at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

When Reba McEntire charted her first single in 1976, Garth Brooks was 14 years old, Shania Twain 11 and Faith Hill only 9. That McEntire is still in the thick of country music this long into the game is a testament to both her talent and business sense. Whatever the reality may be, her career never seems to be sliding. She's just somewhere else doing something different.

After an absence of several months to establish her self-titled WB television series, McEntire is back in the country Top 20 again with "I'm Gonna Take That Mountain," the lead single from her forthcoming album, Room to Breathe. Recently, she told CMT.com that she might resume touring next year.

One of the great joys of being a country fan during the 1980s was watching McEntire advance inexorably from the wings to center stage. The Oklahoma songbird still hadn't scored a Top 5 single by 1980, and it would be 1982 before she achieved her first No. 1. McEntire's progress thereafter is a case study in how to do things right. In 1984, after seven years on the then-moribund Mercury Records label, she switched to the mightier MCA. She changed producers, hired a high-powered manager and publicist, embraced music videos as a serious vehicle of exposure and, ultimately, with husband Narvel Blackstock, created Starstruck Entertainment, a many-tentacled empire that handled her management, booking, concert promotion, music publishing, publicity, recording and transportation.

Every year from 1984 through 1987, McEntire won the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year award and, in 1986, also captured the entertainer of the year trophy. Seeking to widen her audience, she played Carnegie Hall in 1987 and sold it out. McEntire branched into movies in 1990 via a major role in Tremors, a humorous sci-fi flick. Her subsequent screen credits include North, Luck of the Draw, The Gambler Returns and Buffalo Girls. In early 2001, she conquered Broadway -- and turned tough critics into pussycats -- with her performances in the title role of Annie Get Your Gun. Later that same year, she began her weekly WB television series.

In spite of her successes in other fields, music has always been McEntire's bedrock. Her best songs not only incorporate the attitudes and emotional intensity of classic country, they also have important things to say. In fact, no other country artist of her era matched McEntire when it came to recording and performing socially conscious material. "Stairs" tackles the subject of spousal abuse; "Just Across the Rio Grande" sympathizes with the plight of immigrants; "She Thinks His Name Was John" reflects on the perils of unprotected sex; "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" examines parental neglect; "Bobby" is an eloquent defense of "mercy killing"; "All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)" focuses on emotional abandonment of the elderly.

You can witness McEntire in all her evolving vocal splendor (and consciousness-raising) in these five essential albums:

Oklahoma Girl (1996, PolyGram) -- This two-disc set of 40 songs includes almost all of McEntire's early chart singles for Mercury, including such stunners as "Today All Over Again," "I'm Not That Lonely Yet," "Can't Even Get the Blues," "You're the First Time I've Thought About Leaving," "I Can See Forever in Your Eyes" and "There Ain't No Future in This." In addition, the album contains seven previously unreleased tracks. This is a real bargain.

The Last One to Know (1987, MCA) -- Here, McEntire is at the height of her vocal power. This is particularly evident in her rendering of the title tune and in "Love Will Find Its Way to You." Other gems: "Stairs" and "Just Across the Rio Grande."

Reba Live (1989, MCA) -- A collection of great songs from various earlier albums, including the jazzy "Sunday Kind of Love," the sassy "Little Rock" and a bouquet of lamentations that includes "One Promise Too Late," "New Fool at an Old Game," "I Know How He Feels," "Whoever's in New England" and "Cathy's Clown."

Read My Mind (1994, MCA) -- Contrast the maturity and range of McEntire's voice here with the heavily accented rawness of her early works. Among the best cuts: "She Thinks His Name Was John," "Why Haven't I Heard From You," "And Still" and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"

For My Broken Heart (1991, MCA) -- As I have proclaimed elsewhere, this is the best country album ever made. Recorded soon after McEntire lost most of her band in an airplane crash, every song is suffused with sadness. But it's the kind of sadness one savors to learn from. Since each song is powerful and disturbing, I'll list them all: "For My Broken Heart," "Is There Life Out There," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," "The Greatest Man I Never Knew," "Bobby," "He's in Dallas," "All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)," "Buying Her Roses," "I Wouldn't Go That Far" and "If I Had Only Known." If the last two don't break your heart, maybe it's already stopped beating.
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