No matter how far you wander, no matter where your heart may stray, country music is always there for you to come back to. It’s like a compass point—like the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or those familiar old buildings in the heart of your hometown. No matter how chaotic the world gets, and how quickly time speeds up, these constants are immune to progress, affording you the opportunity to reset, and to slow down while in their warming presence. The sound of country music is comforting because you can count on it. And it will welcome you back home whenever you’re ready for it to come back into your life again.
As true as this is for country music’s disciples, so it is for its practitioners. From albums of adult contemporary songs to multi-season sitcoms bearing her name, Reba McEntire’s celebrity has swelled well beyond the borders of country, and her financial well-being has long since been secure. Her spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda is minted, and she’s one of the few entertainers commonly allowed to use “queen” alongside her name. Reba McEntire has nothing to gain by making a strong country record at this point in her career. But she did it anyway because she wanted to. And that sense of deliberate passion and artistic freedom comes through in the twelve inspired songs of Stronger Than The Truth.
First and foremost, Reba McEntire’s thirty third studio album is a breakup record, and not one where fictitious notions are brought to life through country music cosplay because whiskey tears set the best mood for true country songs. Stronger Than The Truth comes in the aftermath of Reba exiting 26 years of marriage to steel guitar player and manager Narvel Blackstock. For a quarter century, Reba and Blackstock weren’t just life partners, they ran Reba’s entire business together. And whether it’s Reba’s pen composing the stories or someone else’s, it’s that true-to-life heartbreak that charges the ink composing this record, and compels the ear listen intently.
Reba promised the most country music album of her career, and she most certainly delivers with Stronger Than The Truth. But let’s not pretend that traditional country records are this rare phenomenon resigned mostly to relics of the past. Just because something is real country does not mean it’s real good. Yes it’s true, in one song after another, Reba McEntire and producer Buddy Cannon deliver the fine traditional country goods on Stronger Than The Truth, and maybe this is extra special coming from someone with the weight behind their name such as Reba McEntire. But the music is not what makes this album special. It’s the songs and the stories, and of course Reba’s Hall of Fame voice.
Reba spends no time messing around. Right out of the gate she springs a mostly instrumental Western Swing number on you called “Swing All Night Long With You.” And this is not one of those Nashville-style close approximations to Western Swing. Remember, Reba is from Oklahoma, where Bob Wills is still the King. Down to the stand up steel instead of its pedal-laden predecessor, this is Western Swing done right. And there’s not one, but two of these songs, with “No U in Oklahoma” co-written by Reba herself constituting maybe one of the best original Western Swing songs to be released in recent memory.
You better get your jollies out with these tracks though, because most everything else moving forward is slow, and downright merciless in its exploration of the deepest recesses of heartache. “Stronger Than The Truth,” “Storm in a Shot Glass,” and possibly the album’s preeminent track, “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain” feel like an unredacted encapsulation of Reba McEntire’s last few years, presented with incredible honesty, even if they come from the pen of others. Country songs that list off other country songs are not hard to come by. But you forget all those others once “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain” comes on the speakers.
And when you think this record can’t get any more devastating, here comes “Cactus In A Coffee Can.” At this point Reba is showing no quarter on your emotional receptors. It’s like she tasked the entirety of Nashville’s music community to find the most earth shattering story, and then set it off with a fiddle dirge that was sure to not leave a dry eye. “The Bar’s Getting Lower” might have been the runner up in that derby, refusing to deliver a happy ending, with “The Clown” coming in for the bronze, set off by a little piano melody that makes it that much harder to hold yourself together. It’s like Reba is trying to act like a counterbalance to all of the silly and happy songs being sent down the conveyor belt on Music Row, and even with their incredible volume, the scales may still tip in Reba’s favor.
With all the talk of just how country this record is, it’s probably fair to point out that some of the tracks such as “In His Mind” and “Freedom” are a bit more contemporary. But you’re okay with that because these are good songs, and Reba couldn’t represent herself accurately without also including these influences. Overall, one of the album’s strong suits is variety, even with the healthy portions of slow, heartbreaking tracks. The Western Swing tunes spice up the listening experience, and the final song, “You Never Gave Up On Me,” which is dedicated to Reba’s mother, delivers an intimate moment to finish the record.
Even with all of the musical meandering that Reba McEntire has done in her career, there’s still something immediately familiar and comforting about hearing her voice. From the strong efforts of her early career, to the apex of her commercial fame with “Fancy,” and irrespective of her more contemporary efforts, Reba McEntire immediately reminds you of an era in country music where everything made much more sense. Stronger Than The Truth is an album worth doting on not just because it might be Reba McEntire’s most country record to date, but because it very well may be one of her best.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
– – – – – – – – – –