(Reba McEntire and director Trey Fanjoy provide a behind-the-scenes look at their new video, "Somebody," on CMT's Making the Video. The episode debuts Friday (Feb. 27) at 6:30 p.m. ET/PT.)
Her music has always come first, of course, but you can make a good case that it was her music videos that ultimately transformed Oklahoma's Reba McEntire into simply Reba. She wasn't the first country act to grasp the enormous image-building potential of videos. Hank Williams Jr. and Sawyer Brown were both ahead of her in this regard. But she was certainly the first woman in country music to break away from the pack by using this medium consistently to portray herself as strong, thoughtful and decisive.
Country record labels began turning out music videos in the early 1980s after they saw how MTV -- which went on the air in August 1981 -- was boosting album sales. In those early days, MTV even programmed some country videos. But after CMT and The Nashville Network opened for business in March 1983, country videos reigned on their own channels.
These new outlets created a demand for more and more videos, which the labels tried to satisfy with cheap, simple and unadorned clips of artists performing. At this stage, videos didn't have to be good to get aired. They just had to be available. However, Williams, Sawyer Brown and later McEntire saw this situation as a golden opportunity to show the public how they viewed themselves -- to project a personality that went beyond any particular song they happened to be singing. They did this through various means. Williams' early videos were backyard bacchanals filled with lots of recognizable faces, all designed to present Williams as the planet's primo party animal. Sawyer Brown did a lot of dancing and jiving in their videos, which befitted a band that viewed itself as much rock as country. McEntire opted for the dramatic story with a resilient woman at its center.
To date, McEntire has starred in 29 music videos, co-starred in four more and made guest appearances in at least five others. She did her first video -- "Whoever's in New England" -- in 1986. It tells the story of a suspicious wife whose businessman husband "spend[s] an awful lot of time in Massachusetts." While there is a definite stand-by-your-man element here -- at least as the song unfolds -- McEntire is neither clingy nor combative in the face of suspected cheating. Instead, she emerges as calm, thoughtful and sure of what she wants and who she is. In her next video, "What Am I Gonna Do About You" (1986), she is a wistful survivor who plugs ahead with life, even though she glimpses her absent lover at every turn. (We don't know whether he's fled or dead.) This is also the video in which she begins to heighten her own presence by using famous co-stars, in this case actor David Keith.
In "Sunday Kind of Love" (1988), McEntire plays a svelte, sophisticated nightclub singer whose lyrics serve as an oblique commentary on a soldier's return home from World War II. The video has a spoken introduction that sets up the lyrics and a spoken conclusion that rounds out the story. This is a device McEntire would use to good advantage -- and to some controversy -- in later videos.
"Cathy's Clown" (1989) turns what was originally a teen-angst song into an Old West melodrama. McEntire plays a saloon girl to Bruce Boxleitner's less-than-swaggering cowboy. The story is something of a stretch, but the sets are glorious. McEntire did three remarkable videos in 1991. In "Fancy," she plays the rich and retired courtesan who returns to the shack from which her desperate mother once cast her into a life of sexual servitude. In "For My Broken Heart," she takes up the cause of women who have to cope with being suddenly single.
But McEntire's greatest video achievement of 1991 was "Is There Life Out There." The song is simply about a woman who marries too early and finds life passing her by. The video, however, is a mini movie in which McEntire plays a married woman with two kids, who has to balance her job as a waitress and her classes as a college student. Rocker Huey Lewis is her helpful and solicitous husband. There were so many scenes and so much dialogue inserted into the lyrics that CMT's previous management issued McEntire a warning to cease and desist the practice. She didn't, although her later lyrical intrusions tended to be briefer and less obtrusive. (The concept of this video was spun into a full-length TV movie of the same name in 1995 that starred McEntire and Keith Carradine.)
Increasingly, McEntire used her videos to showcase herself as an actress. She takes the role of old woman confessing to murder in "The Nights the Lights Went Out in Georgia" (1992). She's a smartly dressed and career-oriented military officer playing opposite fellow officer Vince Gill in "The Heart Won't Lie" (1993). In "Does He Love You" (1993), she is the sinister, conniving wife who literally blows her husband and his mistress (Linda Davis) out of the water. She carries a single storyline from one video through the next in 1997 with "I'd Rather Ride Around With You" and "What If It's You." (This is a technique K.T. Oslin first employed 10 years earlier in "80's Ladies" and "I'll Always Come Back.")
"Forever Love" (1998) is made up of scenes from the TV movie of that name in which McEntire plays a woman who awakens from a years-long coma to discover her husband has fallen in love with her best friend. With many major acting roles now under her belt, McEntire could afford to be self-effacing in "What Do You Say" (1999) -- and she was, appearing only in the final scene.
But resilient Reba roared back to center stage last year with the video "I'm Gonna Take That Mountain." No doubt drawing on her wildly successful Broadway run as the lead character in Annie Get Your Gun, country music's favorite redhead danced, kicked, strutted, mugged and otherwise sent forth the message, "I'm still here -- and I'm better than ever."
And, you know what? She's right.
(To view Reba McEntire's videos, visit her artist page at CMT.com.)