Reba McEntire never wanted to take four years between albums. But along the way she encountered a couple of diversions - including garnering commanding reviews for her starring role in the hit Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun and launching her successful new TV series, Reba.
As much as she missed recording and singing, her absence allowed her a chance to recharge her musical batteries. Now she's ready to return to her first love with a renewed perspective and a stronger-than-ever commitment. In doing so, she's turned Room To Breathe into a celebration of the sum of her strengths, creating a stunningly emotional, wide-ranging album that underscores why she's the most remarkable and accomplished female country singer of her generation.
"I'm proud of all the music I've recorded and not to sound egotistical " Reba remarks, "but I think this is the best collection of songs that I've ever had on one album."
While she worried about staying away so long - this is also the first time she's ever gone more than two years without staging a concert tour - she figures that the break allowed her a chance to re-evaluate what she loves about singing country music. Like the title song says, it gave her room to breathe. Now, having exhaled, she savored the chance to record again, and she did so with more vigor and resolve than ever.
"There's something about having been away from the routine of the music business that ended up being refreshing to me," she says with her typical aplomb. "By getting away from it for a little while, it all feels fresh and new again. It's got a crisp feeling to it. It's just felt so wonderful to get back to music again."
It shows. Room To Breathe soars with exuberance and sighs with heartbreaking subtlety, showing the full range of Reba's remarkable powers. The album shows off the traits that transformed the redhead from tiny Chockie, Oklahoma, into the most important and influential female country singer of her generation.
"I started with this CD the same way I did with all the others, I just tried to find the best songs I could," she explains. "But I wasn't going to be persuaded by anything other than one question: Does this song touch my heart? Even if someone else thought a certain song would be a hit, I wasn't going to record it if it didn't flat out move me to the core. I didn't want to pay attention to trends and politics. I just wanted to pay attention to what I felt inside."
Of course, moving listeners is what Reba does as well as anyone alive. It's why she became the first country female artist to sell five million albums on one album since Patsy Cline. It's why she's now sold more than 48 million albums in her career. That's why stars like Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood cite Reba McEntire as a prime influence.
That influence has manifested itself in many ways. As a role model, she's shown others how to handle fame with grace and good humor while never backing down from her values or goals. Just as importantly, she's shown others to refuse to accept limitations on what she can do or how much she can achieve.
"Whatever I'm doing, I feel like I'm representing country music," Reba says. "It's always been my main career, and it's where my loyalties lie. I feel like I'm waving the flag of country music wherever I go, and I couldn't be prouder to do it."
Room To Breathe confirms Reba's dedication to Nashville and the music that launched her one-of-a-kind career. To continue her fresh break, she collaborated with veteran producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, the latter of whom worked with Reba on her first album for MCA Records in 1984.
"They're a great team. They're both such good song guys, and that's what this album is about for me - the songs," she says. "I always wanted to work with Norro again, and I've always been a fan of Buddy's work. They're laid-back, fun to work with, and true professionals, I couldn't ask for more."
For the up tempo songs, Reba wanted a contemporary sound that drew on traditional sounds like bluegrass, hardcore country and gospel. Her first single, "I'm Gonna Take That Mountain," features banjo, fiddle and dobro in a brisk, modern setting that allows Reba to show off her powerful voice and her equally powerful spirit. A song about conquering new peaks, it fits with Reba's recent accomplishments as well as her career-long attraction to songs that address women who go after what they want in life.
Two other songs - the romping "Love Revival" and the stirring "Sky Full of Angels" - both bring a sense of spiritual strength to Reba's repertoire. "I love those songs because they make you feel so good when you sing them and they are so right for our times," she says. "They have a message that I think is really important. I'm so glad that patriotism and spiritualism are coming back to country music. It's more rooted and grounded in the values of home and family. We need that."
Of course, Reba's always tapped into the tender aspects of human relationships with particular sensitivity. Room To Breathe presents several exceptional songs about life's complexities, including the title song, which finds a woman gently asking her lover for space to find herself. She doesn't want to lose him, but she also wants "to make sure I don't lose me."
Similarly, "Learned To Be Lonely," "He Gets That From You" and "It Just Has To Be That Way" (the latter an exquisitely performed duet with Vince Gill) all find Reba breathing life and depth into individuals caught in moments of painful reflection and transition. Reba gives the lead character of each song a flesh-and-blood dignity that underscores why she attracts so many fans both within the country music faithful and from those who may not have considered themselves country fans in the past.
Other songs celebrate the special bonds of family. "My Sister" honors the unique ties of female siblings with a kind of knowing detail that's personal yet universal. "My older sister Alice was in Nashville as we were recording that song," Reba recalls. "She came with us to the studio as we were putting harmonies on it, and when she heard the lyrics, oh she just cried. She loved it. We're very close."
"Moving Oleta" deals with a more difficult reality - that of a loved one with Alzheimer's disease. Reba's tackled sensitive subjects like this before, and once again she creates an unforgettable performance that will bring tears in a way that encourages healing and discussion.
"Alzheimer's has touched everybody's life in some way. 'If you don't have someone in your family or someone close to you who has Alzheimer's, you're in a minority.' As soon as I heard that song, I knew it had to be on the album."
It's exactly those kinds of songs that have made Reba a household name. Like Oprah, another down-home woman whose compassion and talent turned her into the most approachable of entertainment idols, Reba has a way of raising issues and representing the dreams, desires and concerns that link people of all cultures and backgrounds.
It's that quality that has allowed Reba to branch out beyond any one medium. Whatever venue she tackles, she brings the same strong sense of herself and the same ability to engage people with her personality and talent.
Her move to Broadway obviously presented an enormous challenge - she'd never performed in a play, yet she leapt right into the starring role of one of the most successful and demanding shows on Broadway. She earned rave reviews across-the-board, winning over critics and audiences alike.
The famous celebrity columnist Liz Smith crowned her "the Queen of Broadway," and USA Today suggested "you'd swear Irving Berlin wrote it just for her." New York Times critic Ben Brantley became one of her biggest champions throughout the run, at one point describing Reba as "a nonchalant showoff, making a highly polished performance seem so easy that you wonder why we aren't all Broadway stars."
Reba brought the same naturalness to her leading role in the hit WB Network sitcom that bears her name. "I think the Reba character is a lot like me," she says. "The writers have gotten to know me, so they make her more like me all the time. We have spiritual people writing and working on this show. People with good hearts who want to set good examples like putting a lot of moral values into the character...the kind that Mama and Daddy taught me. That's what makes the show so special and fun for me."
Meanwhile, Reba looks forward to taking her new music to the concert stage. "In 25 years, this is the longest break I've taken from live performing," she says. "I needed a break, to be honest. But now I'm ready. The fans always make it really special, and I miss it."
That word - heart - keeps coming up as Reba talks about her music these days. For someone who's accomplished so much, who's reached so far beyond her wildest dreams, everything still comes back to the same quality that initially drew her to music and to performance in the first place. Reba McEntire has succeeded so well because she knows what's important: sharing her heart, and touching other people's hearts.
--- from the official Reba McEntire website